Vermont experiences solar jobs boom


BURLINGTON >> Vermont has the third-most solar industry jobs per resident of any state in the Union, according to a report published Monday by Washington, D.C.-based group The Solar Foundation.

Next year's solar job market is expected to continue expanding, the report states, with an anticipated 13 percent growth in 2016. Forecasts show the state's workforce as a whole growing only 0.4 percent, according to the report.

Industry representatives say the state has done a good job of exploiting a profitable business sector, that is likely to grow even more lucrative in coming years.

"It's exciting to see Vermont taking its share of this new, clean type of economy," said Andrew Savage, spokesman for solar parts manufacturer All Earth Renewables. "These jobs are happening; either Vermont's going to get them, or they'll go elsewhere."

The relatively high percentage of solar jobs in Vermont are from the manufacturing sector, Savage said. This industry sells products out of state and isn't dependent on sales associated with Vermont's local solar needs.

Two hundred seventy solar businesses in the state employed 1,367 workers in 2015. Of Vermont's solar jobs, around 800 are in installation, and about 250 are in manufacturing. Installers make an average of $23 per hour; figures for manufacturing wages are not available.

Installation and manufacturing represent about 60 and 18 percent of the solar job force, respectively. Sales and distribution jobs employ another 7 percent of Vermont's solar workers, and project development another 5 percent; 11 percent are classified as "other."

Savage said the actual number of Vermonters working in the solar energy may be much higher.

"I think there are a lot of professionals starting to work in the solar industry, but it's only 30 or 40 percent of the work they do," he said.

Most of the state's solar jobs — just over 60 percent — are residential installations, the Solar Foundation report found.

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The share of jobs devoted to large, "utility-scale" installations is less than half the share of these jobs in all solar employment nationwide, with 8.4 percent in Vermont and 21.5 percent across the country.

In 2015 alone, the state put 34.4 megawatts of solar energy into use, bringing total installed solar capacity in Vermont to 104.4 megawatts.

Andrew Perchlik, director of Vermont's Clean Energy Development Fund, said solar companies will continue to employ more people in the near future because of an extension of a large federal tax break for new solar installations, and new net metering rules soon to be promulgated by the Vermont Public Service Board could also have an impact, Perchlik said.

"We thought 2016 was going to be a mad rush to get everything installed that you could before the tax credit was going to expire in December this year," Perchlik said. "But the issue in Vermont became the net metering cap."

Vermont's Public Service Board previously capped the amount of energy the state's utilities may purchase through net metered installations at 15 percent. That number could easily increase when the Board releases new net metering rules, which are due to take effect in the beginning of 2017.

The rules' first drafts are likely to released by the end of the month, Perchlik said.

The Public Service Department, of which Perchlik is a functionary, is seeking to eliminate the net metering cap altogether, he said.

The cap was intended to protect ratepayers from the relatively high rates utilities pay to purchase net metered energy; those rates are intended to incent solar development within the state, Perchlik said. Some ideal price would presumably accomplish both aims, he said.

The state is scheduled to release another report on the clean energy industry in April, Perchlik said, and that's likely to give additional details on some of the information the Solar Foundation report contains.

Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He can be contacted at Follow Mike on Twitter @mike_vtd.


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