Nevada has less than 2 percent of nation’s solar workers

OK, so maybe Nevada’s not the Saudi Arabia of solar power after all.

These days, the Silver State looks more like the Algeria of solar power, with tons of resources but a relatively unimpressive economic impact to show for it.

At least that’s the picture painted in new report on the number of jobs in solar manufacturing, installation, research and development and sales.

Of the nation’s 100,237 solar workers, just 2,025, or less than 2 percent, work in Nevada, according to the Washington-based Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2011. The numbers look better if you consider Nevada’s solar jobs per capita, which ranks No. 4 in the nation. For sheer number of jobs, though, Nevada failed to make the top 10, falling at No. 14 behind such sun-filled hot spots as, um, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. California had more than 10 times the solar jobs Nevada had.

But don’t discount Nevada’s showing, said Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation.

"Being in the top 20 is actually huge. No. 14 is nothing to balk at," Luecke said. "And being No. 4 in terms of jobs per capita is quite an accomplishment. It signals how truly important the solar industry is to Nevada."

Still, the results underwhelmed, given Nevada’s year-round sunshine, low cost of doing business, aggressive renewable-energy portfolio standard and more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds for renewable power lines, generating stations and worker-training initiatives.

Robert Boehm, director of the Energy Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he’s frustrated at the pace of progress in Nevada’s solar industry. It’ll be difficult for Nevada to break into the top 10 for overall jobs, because other states have incentive programs to entice panel makers and researchers, he said. Plus, federal research and development funds have dried up for Nevada, with money going to national research labs in California and New Mexico. Nor does the state’s existing education system help.

"Research and development is definitely part of the problem. Typically, if a company is going to bring more high-tech operations, one of the features they look at is the education system," Boehm said. "We lost a lot of companies because they see the miserable state of education in this state."

Luecke speculated that Nevada may be coming up short in solar manufacturing. Solar installation and megawatt capacity, which are strong in Nevada, account for just half of solar jobs, on average. Manufacturing is a key part of the sector as well, with about 15 percent of jobs. And Nevada’s not known as a manufacturing hub for anything, let alone solar panels. Higher-ranking states, including California, Oregon and Pennsylvania, have strong manufacturing infrastructures that help them attract solar factories.

Plus, solar companies may be outsourcing jobs to other states, Luecke said. A developer that installs large-scale solar arrays may be headquartered in California, for example, and bring in temporary California labor to do the job.

OTHER REPORTS SHOW TREND

The Solar Foundation’s jobs census isn’t the first report to show lackluster results for Nevada’s green economy.

A July study from the Brookings Institution placed Las Vegas in the bottom half of the nation’s 100 biggest cities in the size, concentration and export power of its green economy, with 10,000 jobs, or 1.2 percent of the local employment base. That jobs concentration ranked No. 84 in the nation. Cities with more green jobs than Las Vegas include Albuquerque, N.M.; Columbus, Ohio; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Providence, R.I.

But one big project could change Nevada’s solar fortunes almost overnight.

China-based ENN Mojave Energy Corp. will go before the Clark County Commission in November to discuss buying 5,400 acres of county land near Laughlin for a massive solar-panel factory and photovoltaic power plant.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who represents Laughlin, said Thursday that the factory could employ 2,000 — a number that would double Nevada’s current solar work force.

The plant could put Nevada on the map for solar manufacturing, Sisolak said.

"I think this will be the one that sets the whole field in motion," he said. "I think once you get one (factory and power plant), our climate is extremely well-suited to more."

Competitive issues cloud Nevada’s solar sector, though.

Even as ENN Mojave Energy plans its factory, a Thursday report from The Washington Post said seven U.S.-based solar manufacturers will ask the federal Department of Commerce to impose import duties against Chinese solar manufacturers to offset illegal subsidies by the Chinese government. The manufacturers say they’ve had to cut production as Chinese companies sold panels at prices below production costs.

What’s more, ENN needs a California utility to agree to purchase power from its solar farm before it can begin the project. But California Gov. Jerry Brown said in August that he doesn’t want to import green power from other states. He wants the Golden State to produce all of its own alternative energy, with spare watts for exporting. If Nevada stays stagnant in population growth and electricity-load growth, exporting to California is a must for boosting renewables here, Boehm said. However, that may not be possible given Brown’s edict.

Sisolak said he’s eyeing both trends. He’s not worried about Chinese manufacturers undercutting the price of solar panels made in Nevada. He’s less certain about solar export. He knows of California’s interest in green-energy independence, but he said Nevada would find other markets if California doesn’t work out.

More broadly, the Solar Foundation says "stable and consistent" government incentives, strong renewable portfolio standards and investments in training high-skilled workers would boost solar jobs in Nevada and across the nation.

BIGGER NUMBERS IN 2012

The group predicts big growth in the solar industry in 2012. Employers plan to add 24,000 positions in the next 12 months, for a job-formation rate of nearly 25 percent. Manufacturing jobs will grow 14 percent, compared with 2.6 percent in all manufacturing sectors. The foundation also will refine its numbers in the next four months, perhaps upgrading Nevada’s number of solar jobs, Luecke said. The group gets its data from nationwide telephone surveys of solar-related construction companies, manufacturers, utilities, suppliers and wholesalers, plus statistics from federal and state labor departments.

New solar jobs can’t come fast enough for a state with nation-leading joblessness, but growth will take time, Sisolak noted.

"Not a day goes by where we don’t get calls about this (factory). People are very anxious to see something happening quickly," he said. "They’ll read it in the paper, and think we should be in the ground with shovels and building a month later. But it’s all very time-consuming, the permitting and the power purchase agreements. We just have to dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s."

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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