This story originally appeared in Yale Climate Connections and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
As the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-induced recession, the emphasis is shifting away from the simplified metric of the number of jobs toward a focus on high-quality, high-paying jobs. As some service sectors languish with unfilled positions and shorthanded staffing, the energy industry pays premium wages. Energy workers are paid 34 percent more than the median U.S. wage, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment wage report.
A bygone talking point of the fossil fuel era was that high-paying oil, gas and coal jobs are irreplaceable. But the data show a more encouraging reality: Clean energy jobs pay well, are plentiful and are poised for major growth for the foreseeable future.
Comparing wages across energy sectors
Homer Simpson of "The Simpsons" made at least one good decision in his life — nuclear energy generation is the top breadwinner in the energy industry, according to wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The Department of Labor agency data show parity between wages in the fossil fuel industry and renewables, with solar electricity generation edging out each fossil fuel sector and wind being comparable to fossil fuels. That said, BLS does not track the wind and solar industries as closely as it does fossil fuels. For example, wind and solar jobs are tallied only within the utility sector and not in manufacturing wind and solar components. Nevertheless, the high wages in renewable electricity generation are an encouraging sign that top-dollar energy jobs will be part of the transition toward cleaner energy sources.
A closer look at energy wages
The 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report’s supplement on Wages, Benefits, and Change takes a deeper dive into energy wages. The report pulls together different aspects of each energy sector so that entire industries can be analyzed as a whole and compared to each other.
At first the results will seem to contradict the BLS data. The difference is that this tally captures industry-wide wages, in contrast to BLS data that examine only certain slices of each industry. In the industry-wide comparison, fossil fuels offer slightly higher wages than renewables. Taking a deeper look will show where those wage differences come from.
High-paying jobs are an important consideration as energy transitions from one industry to another, and those jobs lead to a frequent rallying cry of those opposed to moving away from a fossil fuel-based energy economy. Regardless of the relatively small differences between sectors, an important point is that all energy jobs pay well above the national average of $19 per hour, and the non-extractive sectors are growing swiftly. The future of extractive industries’ employment is much less certain.
Comparing wage data by job type
The highest wage category in the energy industry is in electricity generation and power plant operations. Regardless of the energy source, the pay is similar between fossil fuels and renewables, with solar electricity generation edging out the others.
Note that the fossil fuel jobs plotted here are only for the extraction side of the industry. These make up most jobs in fossil fuels, but not all. That explains why wind jobs appear more numerous than coal jobs in this graphic, but are fewer than coal in a previous graph.
If anything, bouncing back and forth between datasets and ways of comparing the industries shows that care must be taken to accurately wrap one’s head around the employment picture in various energy fields. A superficial talking point may not reflect the realities of the situation.
Solar workforce: More watts per worker
The 2020 Solar Jobs Census report gives a detailed look at solar employment trends over the past 10 years. Jobs in solar energy grew sharply in the first half of the decade, then leveled off. Solar installations grew steadily until 2016, then declined for three years before setting a new high mark in 2020, despite COVID-related shutdowns and slowdowns.
In a counterintuitive turn of events, the solar workforce in 2020 was smaller than in previous years, while the installed capacity of new solar panels was the highest to date. The explanation to this seeming contradiction is that solar projects are getting larger, with a shift toward more utility-scale solar farms in addition to smaller-scale residential systems. A trend toward larger systems means the number of installed panels per worker has increased.
Enormous jobs growth ahead for wind and solar
The growth of wind and solar employment is projected to be somewhere between brisk and explosive, depending on which public policy path the U.S. pursues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting 50 percent growth for solar photovoltaic installers and 60 percent increase for wind energy technicians by 2029. The Solar Jobs Census is far more bullish, forecasting 150 percent expansion in the solar workforce over the same time span with current energy policies, and 300 percent growth if President Joe Biden’s goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 is enacted into law.
The Net Zero America study, led by Princeton University, forecasts a wholesale reshaping of the energy industry as a result of switching to low- or zero-emissions energy sources over coming decades. The upshot is that energy employment across the country will nearly double, and as the data at the outset of this analysis show, jobs in the energy economy earn well more than others in the general economy. This shift would bring an infusion of high-paying, stable careers to the U.S. job market.
The coming boom in energy jobs has a lot to offer: Long-term employment with high wages, new technologies and investment in the future of American energy. And these jobs will result in less pollution for everyone.