A growing job creator

by Katie Laning Niebaum (katie@arkansasadvancedenergy.com) 353 views 

The U.S. economy is projected to add 11.5 million jobs over the next decade. It’s no surprise among energy industry watchers that the two fastest-growing jobs among all occupations will be solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians.

The adoption of advanced energy sources — like solar and wind, but also energy efficiency, alternative fuels, battery storage and many more technologies — provides an economic boom to our state’s economy. The advanced energy industry is a key job creator in Arkansas. Since a 2014 jobs census commissioned by the Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation found more than 25,300 workers in the advanced energy industry and a $2.8 billion impact on the state’s economy, there have been several positive trends spurring industry growth.

Innovation and declining costs are helping to drive the deployment of advanced energy technologies. Solar, for example, is an increasingly affordable option for Arkansans seeking to generate their own electricity, both at home and for their businesses.

Arkansas Advanced Energy Association members report that consumer awareness regarding solar’s affordable price and short-term payback has grown. As a result, firms have added new positions to meet growing demand while new companies have entered the marketplace in the last few years alone.

Advanced energy sources are creating opportunities for businesses to capture savings and hedge against energy price volatility. A growing number of corporations have made significant renewable energy commitments explicitly to continue to deliver goods and services at reduced costs to customers. Walmart is one of the “RE100” companies committed to sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewable energy.

Our universities are making key contributions in the advanced energy economy too. The University of Arkansas is home to major research centers that have helped foster an ecosystem in which startups developing solar cell, geothermal and water conservation technologies are flourishing. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith’s Sustainable Conservation House allows students to learn about the latest technology in energy auditing, energy efficiency and solar PV installation in a hands-on laboratory.

Policy makers are playing an important role in the utilization of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures to help create jobs and spur local economic development.
One example: Northwest Arkansas is home to the state’s first energy improvement district, which facilitates energy efficiency, water efficiency and renewable energy improvement projects through Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing.

Commercial property owners in Fayetteville and Springdale can take advantage of PACE, which has the potential to not only reduce utility costs and enhance the value of real property, but also create desirable jobs and generate lasting economic development, as well. A bipartisan consensus of state legislators saw PACE as an answer to the financing barrier that discouraged property owners from addressing deferred maintenance measures and making desired capital improvements. Local leaders – first Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan joined by Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse – recognized the benefits of PACE and established the district.

How can Arkansas continue to benefit from a growing advanced energy economy? By setting policies that encourage market expansion. That means continuing today’s fair value rate for “net metering” customers, the home and business owners who have invested their own capital installing a solar system that provides benefits beyond their own four walls. This is an active issue before the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

It also means enabling initiatives like utility renewable energy tariffs, allowing customers to procure renewable energy through their utility, and utility-enabled Power Purchase Agreements, which would allow companies to contract with an offsite renewable energy project, with the utility agreeing to act as an intermediary to deliver the power.

Advanced energy technologies provide jobs and energy savings in states that deploy them. By enhancing access to these resources, Arkansas can continue to lead in the advanced energy economy.
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Editor’s note: Katie Laning Niebaum is the executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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