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Clean Tech Jobs See Exponential Growth in North Carolina

Published on 19 Mar 2014  |   Written by    |   Be the first to comment!

Ryan McNeill, Renewable Energy Corporation

It’s no secret that clean tech jobs have been exploding in North Carolina, and solar is no exception. In fact, according to the Charlotte Business Journal, employment in North Carolina’s solar industry grew by 121% in 2013. That means that North Carolina is one of the top 10 states in the nation in solar employment.

As the President of a solar installation company, I’ve been able to observe the growth of North Carolina solar from a valuable business vantage point. I’m all too familiar with the policies that led to this rise, and I know just how crucial the solar industry is for job creation in North Carolina. Unfortunately, I’m also familiar with the sort of attacks North Carolina’s solar industry now finds itself facing.

What has accounted for the impressive growth of the North Carolina solar industry? And will solar — and associated solar jobs — continue to rise in North Carolina, or do looming policy fights threaten this progress? To help answer these questions, here’s a look at what’s fueling the solar industry’s impressive job creation in North Carolina.

About Solar’s Growth

As of November 2013, North Carolina had 137 solar companies, more than 3,100 solar jobs (up by more than 1,700 since 2012), and 25 solar jobs per capita, according to statistics published by The Solar Foundation. This major boost in solar jobs “has been a ‘perfect storm’ of adequate policy, responsive industry, and research and development expertise,” says the Clean Energy Leadership Institute’s Lauren Swishberg.

Where Did the Growth Come From?

North Carolina’s solar job growth hasn’t come from one single source, but rather from a variety of factors working together. Here are a few examples:

Renewable Tax Credits

Enacted in 1977, the North Carolina renewable tax credit allows for a 35 percent credit when combined with the 30 percent federal tax credit — which adds up to significant savings for investors, who turn those savings into cheap electricity rates for consumers. Both residential and commercial customers can benefit from the credit, which can reduce initial project costs by about 50 percent.

Passage of North Carolina’s RPS

North Carolina’s Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates that 12.5% of the electricity provided by investor-owned utilities come from renewable sources by 2021. This RPS has been a key factor in the growth of the solar industry in North Carolina, as it provides investors the policy certainty so necessary for their trade.

Our Environment of Innovation

North Carolina is well known for its universities and technical industry — both of which make it a perfect breeding ground for innovation and, in the case of renewable energy, a perfect environment for solar growth.

What Barriers Could Undo This Progress?

Despite the significant growth of solar power in North Carolina that’s already occurred, the state still has various obstacles to overcome for growth to continue. Here are a few:

Expiring Tax Credit

The state’s renewable energy tax credit is set to expire next year, which will take away one major incentive (a 35 percent tax credit) currently prompting companies and residents to move toward solar power. This tax incentive has played a large part in the growth of North Carolina’s solar industry, and the state legislature should consider an extension.

Pushback From Utilities

Solar energy also faces substantial opposition from local energy companies. The more homeowners invest in personal solar systems, the less those homeowners will need energy from traditional sources. All the while, the cost of solar panels continues to drop (60% in the last three years and 99% since 1976), and solar companies continue to devise innovative new ways to help homeowners invest in their own solar system.

Fossil fuel interests have decided to respond to the rise of solar in North Carolina by targeting the job-creating policies that helped support that rise. The state’s RPS has been under attack for months now, yet has been successfully defended by a bipartisan coalition of both Republicans and Democrats. Likewise, a fight is brewing over North Carolina’s net-metering policy. These attacks threaten a growing industry that has been a real bright spot in the midst of a slow economic recovery, and they threaten the jobs that will continue to be created as North Carolina’s solar industry grows.

What will the future hold for solar power in North Carolina? Only time will tell. I know from experience just how important these incentives are for North Carolina’s economy at large, providing both jobs to local residents and -- from a bigger picture -- opportunities to climb out of the recession. But even as incentives come under attack, I’m still optimistic. More and more citizens are seeing the benefits of sustainable power solutions. Solar energy for North Carolina doesn’t just make environmental sense; it makes economic sense as well. Hopefully state legislators are paying attention.

Ryan McNeill

Ryan McNeill is the president of Renewable Energy Corporation, one of the Mid-Atlantic’s largest residential solar energy companies – committed to installing quality, American-made solar panels and energy products for homeowners.

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