Growth in solar is white hot: Report

The U.S. solar industry employs nearly 174,000 Americans, up nearly 22 percent in a year.

"Solar employment grew nearly 20 times faster than the national average employment growth rate," said The Solar Foundation, which released the numbers Thursday in its annual census on solar jobs.

While 174,000 jobs is little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of all U.S. jobs, the foundation said solar accounted for 1 out of every 78 new jobs in 2014. The industry forecasts similar growth in in 2015, with another 36,000 new jobs. If true, that would make three straight years of job growth topping 20 percent.

Technicians install solar panels on a house in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Mario Anzuoni | Reuters

More than half of all solar jobs remain in installation, as a 30 percent federal tax credit continues to make solar more affordable. Also, about half of all home systems and 70 percent of commercial systems are now financed or leased, rather than purchased outright. Even domestic solar manufacturing began to improve.

"The solar installation sector is already larger than well-established sectors of fossil fuel generation, such as coal mining," which employs 93,000 Americans, according to the report.

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Solar also added more jobs than the oil and gas pipeline construction industry did in 2014, even as solar still only produces about 1 percent of all electricity in the U.S.

The jobs census was conducted with support from George Washington University by gathering data from more than 7,600 businesses. Of the jobs added in solar in 2014, 85 percent are truly new jobs, "rather than existing positions that have added solar responsibilities." One in 5 people employed in the industry are women.

Here's a breakdown of average wages:

Installers: $20-$24 an hour

Manufacturers: $18 an hour

Sales: $30-$60 an hour

Designers: $30-$40 an hour

The jobs census reports that solar is spreading to more states. Georgia's installed capacity in 2014 made it one of the top 10 states for solar. "States like Indiana, Virginia and Tennessee will install more solar capacity this year than in all previous years combined."

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But the forecast for solar could get cloudy. Environmentalists have been critical of large developments like the massive BrightSource Energy plant in Ivanpah, California, not far from Las Vegas. Concentrated sun rays at the plant cause birds to "ignite in midair." (BrightSource responded with statistics suggesting birds die far more frequently flying into buildings or from encountering cats.)

The bigger worry is what will happen to the federal tax credit. The Solar Foundation warns that if taxpayer-funded subsidies are reduced to 10 percent after the 30 percent credit expires at the end of 2016, "solar employment growth is likely to slow or may even experience significant job losses."