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 U.S. 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 from 2008 to 2012.
That compares with an estimate of about 49,530 job losses in the coal industry, according to the study. While natural gas was the biggest winner in creating jobs for electricity generation, with almost 95,000, renewable energy is clearly on the rise.
“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 7,500 megawatts of wind projects are under construction, more than all other states combined.
California is the solar king, 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.
Government incentives are under fire, though. The Texas Senate passed a bill that would end wind power incentives if the House agrees. And the green boom could end in 2017, when federal tax breaks are set to expire for wind and diminish for solar power, said William Nelson, head of North American analysis for Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Billingsley, of Tri-Global Energy, 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.