• WisBusiness

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

GreenBiz: Solar manufacturing jobs boost Wisconsin ranking


By Gregg Hoffmann
A recent report by The Solar Foundation ranked Wisconsin fifth in the nation in solar jobs.

Many of those estimated 6,000 jobs are in manufacturing of solar components, which seems to fit the state’s emphasis, according to the foundation's director.

“Manufacturing always has been an important part of Wisconsin’s economy,” said Andrea Luecke, who is well acquainted with the state. She is a native of Dodgeville and was with Milwaukee Shines, the city of Milwaukee solar initiative, before she took the Washington D.C.-based Solar Foundation job.

“Since Wisconsin is not in the Sun Belt, it ranks near the top of the study because of companies involved in solar manufacturing. Those products can be sent anywhere.

“Meanwhile, the awareness of solar in Wisconsin is high. There are two Solar America cities (Madison and Milwaukee) there, so they are demonstrating that solar energy can work in places where the sun doesn’t shine all the time.”

California ranked first in the study with an estimated 36,000 solar jobs and 1,072 solar firms. Pennsylvania was second with 6,700 and 282 respectively, followed by Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin, which had an estimated 6,000 jobs and 89 firms involved in solar energy.

The Solar Foundation cooperated with Green LMI Consulting, Cornell University and others in the study called The National Solar Jobs Census 2010. It is the first attempt to quantify the current employment and projected growth of the U.S. solar industry and is based on a “statistically valid” sampling of employers throughout the nation.

“This is about business and jobs,” Luecke said. “We have always discussed solar in terms of environmental improvement and other issues, but this shows that it also can be a growth industry.”

As of August, according to the study, an estimated 93,000 workers were involved in the solar industry in the nation. Fifty percent of the firms that responded to the study survey said they expected to add jobs in the next 12 months, while only two percent said they expected to cut workers.

The West has the largest percentage of solar jobs, but such jobs exist in all 50 states. The average solar manufacturing firm employs 24 workers. The average installation firm employs eight workers and average wholesale trade company has four solar workers.

According to the study, the average utility that generates solar electric power employs four solar workers.

Luecke said the average response rate from employers in the study was 29 percent. In Wisconsin, 50 percent of the employers contacted responded.

“That’s another statistic that shows Wisconsin is very aware of solar,” Luecke said. “It also might demonstrate that some of the employers had worked with Milwaukee Shines and knew me.”

One of the emerging shining stars in Wisconsin solar is Helios USA, located in the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee. CEO Steve Ostrenga and his staff used a $1 million grant from the state to start manufacturing photovoltaic modules.

The modules have a variety of applications from helping provide electricity to buildings to providing “heat under your feet” with systems that melt snow on walks and driveways.

The company expects to employ more than 100 people within five years in advanced manufacturing jobs, using robotics.

“We are looking for people who want to begin a career in solar,” Ostrenga said. “To deliver a quality product and have a sustainable enterprise, it started with a vested, motivated team.

“The key success factors will be to drive operational efficiencies and to produce highly efficient modules. This will make solar mainstream and ultimately expand the solar market not only in Wisconsin but globally.”

An Italian-based company, Caleffi Hydronic Solutions, established its North American office by opening a 35,000 square-foot facility in the Menomonee Valley in 2007. The company produces pre-engineered solar water heaters, solar components and other products.

Rex Gillespie, a vice-president at Caleffi, recently was elected the first president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association. WISEIA was founded this year and supports all types of solar energy, including photovoltaic, solar thermal, concentrating solar power and solar lighting.

Members include manufacturers, distributors, installers, contractors, project developers, consultants, educators, financiers and others interested in the industry.

By no means does the Milwaukee area have a monopoly on solar companies, SolarCompanies.com, which publishes a national directory of solar services, lists companies ranging from Sturgeon Bay to Middleton.

Companies involved in solar include startup companies and well-established firms such as Johnson Controls and others.

WISEIA was created to serve those in the solar industry and also promote the industry with the public and government officials. “The employers who belong to WISEIA want to help lawmakers understand the tremendous benefits of solar energy for our state, especially the economic benefits,” Gillespie said at the time of his election. “We have the opportunity to keep our energy dollars at home while creating real jobs.”

Luecke said the 2010 election results, with Republicans taking over the House on the national level and the Legislature and governor’s office in Wisconsin, could add to the challenge of continuing the growth in solar industries.

“There’s always a challenge in promoting solar,” she said. “Solar gets $1 of subsidies from government for every $5 that goes to fossil fuels. The challenge might be greater. Some of the incoming legislators have talked about scaling back what already are very modest goals for percentage of solar power.

“We want to work with both parties though and believe these job statistics show that solar is a growing industry that can provide jobs. I think people have come to realize the importance of alternative energy overall on a variety of fronts, so we hope the progress in solar continues.”

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes the GreenBiz column periodically.

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