Growth in the solar power sector From the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house on Southwest Blakely Road in Bend, Kip Barrett, left, and Chance Currington, both from Sunlight Solar Energy Inc., have a good view of two of their company’s recent solar power installations on the houses behind them. The company is one of many in Oregon that has hired more workers as the state’s clean-energy sector grows. Since January 2008, Sunlight has tripled its work force, from three to nine.
Solar. Wind. Water. Geothermal, biomass and even garbage. With all these opportunities, it’s no wonder Oregon leads the nation in clean energy. And based on the number of alternative energy firms sprouting up in Central Oregon, it seems only natural that growth in green jobs has far outpaced the national average.
Rod Page, who lives just north of Bend, is concerned about the nation’s energy consumption. Accordingly, he drives a biodiesel-fueled car and later this week will have solar panels installed on his roof to help power his home.
He’s wanted to install them for more than two years, but found it cost-prohibitive. Now, thanks to state and federal tax credits, the cost has come down enough to make economic sense for Page.
But this isn’t really a story about solar power. It’s about the demand created by folks like Page who are helping to fuel rising employment in the clean-energy sector.
In other words, green jobs.
According to a report released Wednesday by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, jobs in the country’s clean-energy sector grew at a rate of 9.1 percent between 1998 and 2007, compared with total job growth of only 3.7 percent in the same period.
In Oregon, the number is greater. According to the report, jobs in Oregon’s clean-energy sector grew at a rate of 50.7 percent between 1998 and 2007, compared with total job growth of 7.5 percent in the same period.
The report doesn’t break out data below the state level, but based on the number of clean- or renewable-energy companies that have set up shop in the region in the last decade, the number of jobs created in Central Oregon has been significant.
Sunlight Solar Energy Inc., a Bend company which designs and installs solar power systems, and which will install a system at Page’s house this week, has grown from three employees in January 2008 to nine currently, said spokesman Chance Currington. That’s 200 percent employee growth in 1½ years.
That doesn’t count the 25 people the company employs at its installation office in Milford, Conn., that opened in 2004 or the six people that work out of the company’s Newton, Mass., office that opened in January.
Currington said Sunlight, though founded and based in Bend, opened offices in the Northeast because of surging demand there for solar power systems, partly because of generous government incentives but also because electricity costs are much higher in New England.
Locally, Currington said, Sunlight is booked through August. That’s noteworthy because in the three years he’s been with the company, the longest it had been booked out was three weeks. He attributes the growth in demand to various factors, including falling prices for materials and rising costs for electricity.
Also key to the growth in demand was the extension of the federal solar investment tax credit by Congress late last year. Rather than an incremental one- or two-year extension, the credit was extended for eight years and a $2,000 cap on the credit was eliminated.
It allows purchasers of solar energy systems to recover 30 percent of the system’s cost in the form of a one-time tax credit that reduces their income tax liability. For example, a $10,000 solar system would yield a $3,000 federal tax credit.
“The extension of the tax credit, it added stability, and that stability has been huge for us,” Currington said.
For customers of Pacific Power, Sunlight can now install residential solar systems for roughly $14,000, Currington said. But thanks to a $4,000 cash incentive from Energy Trust of Oregon, the out-of-pocket expense drops to $10,000. Add the federal tax credit and a four-year Oregon tax credit of $1,500 annually, and the eventual cost is less than $1,000.
“Once they could come down and put in a reasonable system for under $10,000, it made sense for me,” Page said. “With the incentives they have out now, it just kind of makes some sense and hopefully we’ll be able to save some money over the long run and the house’s value will go up. It’s a long-term investment for me.”
Page said he expects to make up the system’s remaining costs in energy savings after five years.
Central Oregon is home to a number of renewable-energy companies that weren’t here a decade ago.
Bend’s PV Powered, which manufactures solar power equipment and employs roughly 55 workers, recently announced a major investment that will allow the company to hire more workers to help manage its expected growth.
The company’s CEO, Gregg Patterson, said in a previous interview with The Bulletin that he expects the company to double or triple its employees by the end of next year and that it’s his ambition to eventually be Bend’s largest employer.
Also in Bend is InEnTec LLC, a waste-to-energy company that recently announced a joint venture with Houston-based Waste Management, a Fortune 500 company with more than $13 billion in revenues. Their venture, S4 Energy Solutions LLC, will be based in Houston, but its Bend-based CEO, Jeff Surma, anticipates hiring up to 20 engineers to staff its Bend office in the next few years.
Western Community Energy, a wind power company, recently relocated to Bend from Montana and announced plans to hire more workers.
There’s also Vulcan Power Co., a Bend-based developer of geothermal energy projects.
According to the Pew report, there were more than 1,600 clean-energy companies operating in Oregon in 2007, providing more than 19,000 jobs — or more than 1 percent of the jobs in the state. While that number may seem slight, it still means Oregon has more jobs in its clean-energy sector than any other state, said Kil Huh, a Pew spokesman.
In addition, the report named Oregon among the top three states, along with Colorado and Tennessee, with the fastest clean-energy job growth in the nation.
And in the three years between 2006 and 2008, clean-energy companies in Oregon attracted $70 million in venture capital investment.
What explains the growth?
Part of the reason has to do with Oregon’s geography and a basket of different natural resources that can be tapped for energy, including solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and biomass, said Bruce Laird, with the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department and the state’s top business development officer for renewable energy.
There’s also a history and culture of environmental stewardship — evident in laws regarding land use, recycling and emissions — rooted in the state and on the West Coast, Laird said.
Add government policies that encourage the adoption of green technology, and it’s the equivalent of hanging out a flashing welcome sign, said Laird, noting that 70 percent of the business leads the department receives regarding companies expressing interest in relocating to Oregon are from renewable-energy companies.
“These renewable technologies and policy-support positions are West Coast movements, so many of these companies are naturally gravitating toward the West Coast,” Laird said. “You gotta be lucky every once in a while, and I think we might qualify in that category, because we do have good natural resources.
“But our best resource has been the commitment of the population to green solutions and environmental sustainability, and that’s why I think it’s given us a good foundation and a great opportunity. … We’re leveraging our values into jobs, and that should be no great surprise.”
Andrew Moore can be reached at 541-617-7820 or amoore [at] bendbulletin [dot] com.