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State predicts bright future for jobs in solar energy

By Joyce Pellino Crane and Chris Reidy
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / September 9, 2009

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The number of jobs in the state’s solar energy industry nearly doubled from 2007 to 2008 - and the numbers are on pace to grow sharply again this year, according to Massachusetts officials.

Ian A. Bowles, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said he would disclose the numbers today at the trade show Cleantech Forum XXIII. The two-day show opened today at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

A survey of nearly 100 solar energy employers in Massachusetts showed the number of jobs in the sector grew from 1,086 in 2007 to 2,075 in 2008, Bowles said. The growth is “indicative of the health and welfare’’ of the local solar energy industry, he added.

Renewable energy initiatives - especially those that are solar-related - have been a key part of Governor Deval Patrick’s push to make Massachusetts a “green’’ energy leader. In June, the state said it plans to use $20 million in federal stimulus money to build about 16 megawatts worth of solar installations in Massachusetts. When Patrick took office, there were 3.5 megawatts of solar power generating capacity in the state. The governor has set a goal to have 250 megawatts of solar capacity by 2017.

State officials are also touting as a boon to the Massachusetts economy a recent award of almost $1 million in grants for green jobs training, but some economists expressed skepticism over the long-term impact of the funding.

The grants, awarded to six organizations and schools including the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Blackstone Valley Vocational Regional School District in Upton, will fund training for energy efficiency programs such as weatherizing buildings and technician apprenticeships. Some of the money will back graduate and undergraduate engineering and interdisciplinary programs, but the bulk of the funds are for vocational training.

Samuel Sherraden, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the industry is too new to benefit from job creation programs.

“I don’t see the green sector providing the stimulus that the economy needs,’’ he said, “either in terms of jobs or in terms of the positive impact on the trade balance, because the US relies too heavily on foreign countries to source goods needed for a green economy.’’

Michael Lynch, an economist with IHS Global Insight in Lexington, said a program that trains workers in energy efficiency would require a demand side to translate the training into new growth, and it’s unclear whether the regional market is large enough to keep those workers employed.

The recession has taken a toll, he said. “The market for energy efficiency improvements may have shrunk relative to where it was a few years ago,’’ he said.

The real impact to the regional economy, Lynch said, will be realized when investment dollars create research, engineering, legal, and consulting jobs among the area’s technology companies.

“The essence of the economy for Massachusetts is that we have a cluster of high technology firms here,’’ he said.

Lynch cited a 2008 IHS study that estimated that although the demand to reduce energy consumption by 35 percent annually through 2038 will require 81,000 US jobs, there is a potential demand for 1.4 million research and engineering jobs over the same period.

Government officials voiced certainty that stimulus dollars for green job training are necessary to meet future demand. “We’re making a down payment on the nation’s environmental future,’’ said Matt C. Rogers, senior adviser for Recovery Act Implementation at the US Department of Energy. “A critical component is making sure we have a workforce for the jobs that are here now and in the future.’’ Rogers, who is charged with overseeing the disbursement of almost $37 billion in energy stimulus funds under the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, is the Cleantech Forum’s keynote speaker.

The green jobs training grants are financed by a 2008 appropriation for the Massachusetts Alternative and Clean Energy Investment Trust Fund of the Green Jobs Act. “The single biggest priority of our clean economy nationwide is energy efficiency,’’ said Philip Giudice, commissioner of the state’s Department of Energy Resources. “And the single biggest component of energy efficiency will be man hours’’ for such jobs as insulating homes.

Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at crane@globe.com. Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.

Photo gallery

Green and growing

Green and growing

Check out some of the green-energy companies in Mass.