Solar studies: The good, the bad, etc.

I’m not sure if it’s election year posturing – the renewable energy industry is lobbying Congress heavily to preserve key financial incentives such as the production tax credit – or a push back from the Solyndra bankruptcy, but it seems barely a day goes by without some solar study landing in my email box.

What’s clear is that advocates for solar and the green economy in general are positioning the sector as a job creator that, in California, is growing faster than other traditional industry sectors. How good or effective the studies are depends on how closely they reflect what’s really going on –- and provide useful information –- rather than trying to oversell the impact of green jobs or manipulate public perceptions.

In the latter category, we have a study released Thursday — with support from Vote Solar, a nonprofit promoting local policies that increase the number of solar installations — billed as a survey of public attitudes toward solar development.

What I found instead is a poll funded by a major solar corporation, BrightSource Energy, with softball questions designed to elicit desired answers.

Case in point, the first question in the poll asked participants if they  agree or disagree with the following statements:

“California’s deserts are a great resource. We should use parts of them to develop renewable energy projects. “

No surprise, 78.6 percent of respondents agreed, while only 15.6 percent disagreed and 5.8 percent were unsure or refused to answer.

Wonder what the answers would have been if the question had been phrased as follows:

“California’s deserts are a great resource, with incredible visual vistas and habitat for endangered and unique desert plants and animals. Should we put thousands of solar panels there or on previously disturbed land?”

Yes, that’s a loaded question looking for a specific answer, but serves the point.

The irony here is that of the major solar developers, BrightSource has been one of the few to place some of its projects on previously disturbed land – like the company’s 750-megawatt Rio Mesa project now in the works on private land near Blythe.

The study also tries to tip the balance of public opinion by linking solar development with the creation of “thousands of local construction jobs for two to three years, and . . . between 80 to 100 permanent operations and maintenance jobs.” Respondents were then asked if knowing that makes them more or less likely to support large-scale solar.

Once again, 73.4 percent came down on the more likely side, 10.5 percent less likely, 8.6 percent no difference and 7.5 percent unsure or refusing to answer.

Time for a reality check here — and another, more realistic study on solar industry jobs, from the Centers for Excellence, a research and analysis outfit that provides California’s community colleges with information aimed at aligning curriculum and programs with job market needs.

Also released Thursday, this study is based on surveys and interviews with large and small solar companies across the state, along with analysis of relevant community college programs.  The good news here is that solar jobs have been growing faster than the general job market.

The study found that the state’s 2,000 solar firms employ around 50,000 workers, with another 18,000 jobs expected by 2015 — a healthy 36 percent increase.  But, the study’s breakdown by region found Southern California growth rates lower, with 8 percent growth projected for 2012 and 19 percent by 2015.

Other sobering findings — for large-scale solar projects, contractors often bring in their own crews from out of state — as has happened at NextEra Energy’s Genesis project, a 250-megawatt solar thermal plant about half way between Desert Center and Blythe. 

When Desert Sun photographer Richard Lui and I visited the site last week, one of the first things we noticed was that almost all the pick-up trucks on site had Minnesota license plates, cause that’s where the general contractor is headquartered.  We were told about 50 people on the site were from Minnesota — though some had brought their families out and are now living here — and the balance of workers on the site came through union hiring halls in Riverside and Orange County. 

Another nifty factoid, solar installers tend to hire skilled trades people — electricians, roofers and plumbers – with solar skills, along with specifically trained solar installers.  No surprise then that many students in College of the Desert’s solar training programs have been unemployed construction workers, and that the class prepares them to pass the basic certification test of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners — aka NABCEP — a strong resume point for solar installers.

But along with installers, the job categories people will need training for in solar may be more in sales, system design and administration, the study found.

Moving to the green job market statewide, Next 10, another nonprofit, released its employment survey, called “Many Shades of Green” earlier this week.  What’s good about this study is that it looks not only at what the group calls the core green economy — such as jobs directly related to renewable energy, energy-efficiency and recycling — but also the secondary, adaptive green economy, which includes businesses that are going green, asking their vendors for greener products or coming up with more sustainable business practices.

The major drawback to this study is that its figures are about two years old — providing job stats only up to 2010. Like the rest of California’s economy, the green sector took its hits in 2009, but had fewer job losses. Overall, the study says, job figures for the state were down 7 percent in 2009, versus just 3 percent in the green economy.

The Inland Empire was one of only three areas in the state where the green economy did worse than other sectors. While overall, the green economy in San Bernardino and Riverside counties has grown 43 percent since 1995, in 2009, green jobs went down 7 percent versus 5 percent for the rest of the economy in the region.

Next 10 did not have breakout figures for Riverside County, but Tracy Gosse, who authored the study, said the region was one of the hardest hit in the recession. In 2009, the area saw drops in business at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, on top of the region’s moribund housing market.  Presumably, 2010-2011 figures, when available, will show some growth.

Still, what the study does show, without overselling or manipulating data, is that the green economy is growing as energy efficiency, renewable energy and recycling all go mainstream and are integrated into the supply chain and, that in many cases, its growth is bottom-line driven.

When Walmart places third on EPA’s list of the top 50 U.S. businesses buying renewable energy — with 75 percent of its California stores having some kind of renewable generation — then green jobs expand and other jobs become greener.

As Andrew Winston, a green business blogger at the Harvard Business Review website, noted in a recent post

“If the lords of low cost recognize the strategic value of green investments, so can the rest of us. ”