Putting partisanship aside in pursuit of solar energy jobs
By Raja Krishnamoorthi
It must seem to many frustrated Americans that Republicans and Democrats in Congress disagree on everything under the sun. But it turns out the sun has the power to bring us together.
Earlier this month, Congressman Ralph Norman, a Republican from South Carolina, and I, a Democrat from Illinois, launched the Congressional Solar Caucus. This bipartisan group with members from all across the U.S. will serve as a forum to explore the promise of renewable energy and solar technology to create new businesses and good-paying American jobs.
Both Congressman Norman and I come to this issue naturally. Before my election to Congress in 2016, I was president of a small solar technology firm in the Chicago suburbs. For his part, Congressman Norman joined his father’s property and construction business right after college and helped it grow into one of South Carolina’s most successful commercial real estate developers. Both of us saw firsthand the potential for the solar industry to bring good-paying jobs to millions of Americans. And the numbers back us up.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the number of jobs in the solar industry increased by 82 percent in the last three years. At the end of 2016, 9,000 solar companies employed more than 260,000 American workers with an average wage of $25 an hour. In fact, one out of every 50 new jobs in 2016 was a solar job. As a result, the cost to install solar power has decreased by more than 70 percent since 2010, helping to spur economic development and decrease our national dependence on foreign oil.
The tremendous growth of our domestic solar industry promises real benefits for millions of American workers. Already, the U.S. solar industry is creating such jobs 12 times faster than the overall economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently projected that between 2016 and 2026 the two fastest-growing occupations will be in the renewable energy field: solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians.
Illinois is particularly well-positioned to gain from the growth of the solar industry. Our state benefits from a large concentration of physicists who could make us a hotbed of innovation in semiconductors — the heart of solar technology. With nearly 700 resident physicists, we rank eighth in the country and tops by far among the Midwest states. In 2015, both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago turned out more than 100 physics grads, while the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) each added another 30.
Because of its impact on job creation and economic development, investments in renewable energy have already demonstrated potential for bipartisan support in Congress and in state legislatures across the country. Both Republican and Democratic legislators across the country came together in the last Congress to extend the renewable energy Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit through the end of 2019 and 2022 respectively. This display of bipartisan compromise is expected to catalyze a total of $73 billion in new investment by 2020, and has significantly decreased the cost of solar systems for American markets and consumers.
Now, more than ever, it is essential that Congress recognizes the expansion in this industry and identifies the opportunities and challenges solar energy offers for American workers and a stronger U.S. economy. And we shouldn’t let politics get in the way. That’s why the new Congressional Solar Caucus will work on a bipartisan basis to find common ground and tackle the challenges facing solar businesses and their workers. We will explore how policymakers, business and labor leaders, and academic experts can work together to foster new businesses and good jobs while ensuring America’s leadership in the fast-growing solar industry. Amidst the hothouse of partisan politics in Washington, good things can grow if we can put aside our differences in pursuit of good jobs and a strong economy. The Solar Caucus will help our Congress, and our country, to do exactly that.
U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, of Hoffman Estates, is a Democrat from the 8th District.