The economic impact of solar; Utah ranks 6th in the nation

Once referred to as a form of “alternative” energy, solar power has become a mainstream energy resource in Utah and a soaring economic driver for the state, thanks to falling prices and environmentally-conscious businesses and residents who are concerned about energy independence and improving the state’s air quality.

The Solar Energy Industry Association recently reported that Utah gained 1,729 solar industry jobs in 2016, representing a 65 percent increase in the state’s solar workforce, based on data from the National Solar Jobs Census 2016. Utah now has a total of 4,408 solar workers, up from 2,679 in 2015. What’s more, Utah ranks 14th in the nation for the number of solar jobs by state and seventh nationwide on a per capita basis.

Vivint Solar is the largest solar employer in Utah, and CEO David Bywater noted recently that the industry’s expansion underscores the strong consumer demand for rooftop solar and energy independence.

Similarly, Ryan Evans, president of the Utah Solar Energy Association, says the direct job growth in the industry is being driven largely by solar companies hiring installers and contractors to meet the demands of residential and corporate consumers hungry to take part in the energy revolution. Direct job growth also stems from increased hiring by the state’s solar manufacturers, distributors and utility-scale solar generation companies. Meanwhile, indirect jobs are being added in sales, finance, investment firms and other areas due to the industry’s annual double-digit growth.

Utah now ranks sixth for solar states in the U.S., according to data from GTM Research. Solar installations in Utah increased 500 percent year-over-year, to 1,489 megawatts total versus 248 megawatts in 2015. Utah is also one of nine states that have installed more than one gigawatt of solar capacity. Evans says Utah hit its stride in 2016, jumping from approximately 5000 residential installations in 2015 to about 13,000 in 2016.

Commercial installations in Utah also jumped approximately 500 percent in 2016 and the tremendous growth pattern is expected to continue well into the future as companies and organizations like eBay, Boeing, the University of Utah, Intermountain Healthcare, Convergys and Adobe procure renewable energy to meet their compliance and sustainability goals.

In 2012, IKEA’s Draper store “plugged in” Utah’s largest private solar array, a 180,500-square-foot, 1,015-kilowatt system of 4,228 photovoltaic (PV) panels, which produces approximately 1,487,000 kilowatt-hours of clean electricity annually. Other commercial solar endeavors have followed. In 2015, Boeing employed 3,600 rooftop-mounted tubes in a solar water heating system that provides heating for a portion of the company’s 30,000-square-foot paint facility in Salt Lake City. The tubes collect enough solar energy to pre-heat air sent to the preparation and paint booths and thereby reduce the amount of natural gas consumed and greenhouse gasses emitted.

The University of Utah became the first university in the country to sponsor a community solar program, whereby students and other university-associated residents may purchase discounted rooftop solar panels. The program follows other successful community solar programs in Summit and Salt Lake Counties.

More recently, the City of Moab announced its plans to move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2032. The renewable energy ambition includes the installation of a roof-top solar array on city hall. And in early February, Utah Clean Energy and Salt Lake City joined forces to unveil a 10-year solar deployment plan for Utah. The plan outlines four key areas of continuing challenges and identifies ways to reduce their impact. Some of those challenges include the permitting process, restrictions on rooftop solar, the shortage of available financing options and the lack of suitable rooftop space.

On the downside, earlier this month solar industry leaders and state lawmakers reached an agreement for a four-year phase-out of tax credits for the installation of residential rooftop solar arrays, which may stunt growth somewhat. However, one of the most complicated and controversial challenges to be faced involves the overhaul of the state’s utility business model to more fully embrace renewable energy and energy efficiency. It will be difficult, but is nonetheless essential. Evans notes that area sources such as homes and businesses will soon surpass tailpipes as the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases along the Wasatch Front.

“We need clean buildings, solar power and energy efficiency,” he continues. “They are all important to our air quality in Utah.”

To be sure, Utah shines as a destination for businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprints, and as the center for solar energy power generation. Evans says Utah is the sixth sunniest state in the nation, has vast open lands in the central and southern parts of the state and high elevations – the perfect ingredients for vast solar arrays.