Far more jobs have been created in wind and solar in recent years than lost in the collapse of the coal industry, and renewable energy is poised for record growth in the United States this year.
“I started this company in 2009 and I have seen tremendous growth since then,” said John Billingsley, CEO of Tri-Global Energy in Dallas.
Billingsley built his business on wind energy, which generated more than 10 percent of the electricity in Texas last year. He said he is hiring more workers to expand into solar power as well.
Researchers at Duke University, using data from renewable energy trade associations, estimate in a new study published in the journal Energy Policy that more than 79,000 direct and spinoff jobs were created from wind and solar electricity generation between 2008 and 2012.
That compares with an estimate of about 49,530 coal industry job losses, according to the study. While natural gas was the biggest winner in creating jobs for electricity generation, with almost 95,000 jobs created in that time, it’s clear renewable energy has been on the rise in the United States.
“The capacity growth in wind was amazing, and the growth in solar has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Lincoln Pratson, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
Wind power created 9,000 jobs in Texas in 2014, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and there are 7,500 megawatts of wind projects under construction in Texas, more than all other states combined.
California is the solar king and is expected to account for more than half the solar construction this year.
But the region hardest hit by the decline of the coal industry, Appalachia, is seeing few green jobs created.
“In West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where a lot of the job losses have occurred, it is very rugged terrain, these are not easy places to set up wind and solar facilities, they are heavily forested,” Pratson said.
State laws also helped drive the growth outside of Appalachia. Pratson said. Twenty-nine states specify a percentage of renewable electricity that utilities should meet, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Kentucky and West Virginia are not among them.
“States with incentives have more growth,” said Drew Hearer, a Duke University research analyst who co-authored the study. “The Southeast is incentive-free, and there is almost no development of green energy there compared to other regions.”
Government incentives are under fire, though. The Texas Senate passed a bill that would end wind power incentives if the state House agrees. And the green boom could come to an end in 2017 when federal tax breaks are set to expire for wind and diminish for solar power, said William Nelson, the head of North American analysis for Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects 18.5 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity built nationwide this year, beating the record set in 2012 of 17.1 gigawatts, as companies rush to complete work before the tax breaks stop.
Congress has always extended the wind incentives in the past, but opposition to the tax breaks has been growing.
“I hear from our wind analysts that they truly believe this could potentially be the end,” Nelson said.
Billingsley, of Tri-Global Energy in Texas, said he thinks the federal tax credit for wind energy will be extended but phased out in the coming years. In the meantime, he said, his company’s wind projects are moving forward, and he’s preparing to expand his base of about 25 employees.
“I expect that in the next two or three years we will probably double or triple our number of employees,” he said.