A shift in the U.S. economy is reflected by an increase in Virginia solar jobs, which, for the first time in history, outnumber jobs in the coal industry.

With millions of years-old anthracite, semi-anthracite, and bituminous coal found in the State, Virginia has long been considered a coal state. Virginia ports are the leading exporters of U.S. coal, typically shipping more than one third of the nation’s total, most of it from out of state. Although Virginia has almost 70 active coal mines, recoverable reserves at the state’s producing mines are less than 2 percent of the nation’s total; yet, for the first time in history, Virginia solar jobs outnumber jobs in the coal industry.

Numbers from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy show a 40 percent drop in the number of people working in the coal industry over the last five years. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, employment in the U.S. coal industry has declined from 174,000 to 55,000 in the last 30 years.

Virginia Solar Jobs

Comparatively, the number of jobs in the solar industry have sky rocketed. According to the Solar Foundation’s Solar Job Map, there has been a 24.5 percent increase in solar jobs in the U.S. overall; in Virginia, there has been a 64.9 percent increase.

According to an International Renewable Energy Agency report, solar employment expanded 17 times faster than the total U.S. economy in 2016. Most solar energy jobs are in installation, construction, and manufacturing. Numbers from the Solar Foundation show that the industry grew by about 65 percent over the last year alone. Despite there being more of them, Virginia solar jobs tend to be lower-paying than coal industry jobs.

Coal produces more energy; solar produces more jobs.

Henry Childress with the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance says, “Coal will produce more jobs I think in the long term. But we’ve had to cut back because everyone feels like it’s not worth it to use coal anymore. And I feel that there will be a time when we will have to turn back to coal to meet the demand.”

However, the International Renewable Energy Agency weighs the benefits, stating that the coal mining process, while it produces much more energy than solar, is highly-automated. The annual report states, “In the specific case of the United States, solar generating capacity represents only slightly more than 1% of the total power capacity (coal at 26 percent). However, solar workers are already twice as numerous as those in the highly-automated coal industry.”

Alexander Winn at the Solar Foundation says he’s hopeful more jobs will shift from coal to solar: “There are efforts to retrain some coal workers, and hopefully those will continue to grow as solar becomes an increasingly large employment sector in the Virginia energy industry.”

A closer look at Virginia Solar Jobs

Virginia Solar Jobs

8,000 solar panels mounted on Phillip Morris office building in Chesterfield County

In Virginia, solar jobs grew 53 times faster than the overall state economy in 2016. That same year, there were 3,236 solar jobs. The county with the largest number of solar jobs is Fairfax County with 463 solar jobs, followed by Virginia Beach City with 194 jobs, Henrico County with 155, Richmond City with 132, and Chesterfield County with 126.

The largest increase in type of solar job is in project development, of which there are 577 jobs, a 109 percent increase since 2015 numbers. The most solar jobs in Virginia are in installations, with more than 1,700 jobs in 2016, a 46 percent increase since 2015. The lowest number of solar job types in Virginia is in sales and distribution with only 302 jobs; yet, that is still a 74 percent increase from 2015 numbers.

The median wage for a solar panel installer is $26 an hour. Bryan Birsic, CEO of Wunder Capital said “[solar jobs seem] to be one of the few areas of high-paying, blue-collar jobs — and you don’t have to learn to code.” Wunder Capital is a fintech company that allows investors to help finance solar panel installations.

With newer technologies and automations, the number of coal jobs are expected to decline. As the solar industry is expected to grow, Virginia solar jobs are also expected to increase.

What do you think of the growth of the solar industry? Good or bad for Virginia’s economy? Let us know in the comments below!

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