Greenspace: Minnesota leads Midwest in clean energy job growth

The Red Wing community solar garden near Red Wing High School provides much of the power to run the district’s schools. The solar garden, which went online in the fall of 2016, consists of more than 20,000 solar panels and generates up to 5 megawatts. Growing interest in community solar projects have helped Minnesota’s renewable energy jobs grow in 2017.

Minnesota is a leader in the Midwest for the growth of clean energy jobs, employing more than 59,000 workers from every county across the state.

That’s according to a report released Aug. 8 by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. The report is the third annual analysis of clean energy employment in Midwest states conducted by Clean Energy Trust and the nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs.

The report, which analyzed changes in clean energy employment between 2016 and 2017, saw an increase in Minnesota of 1,521 jobs or 2.6 percent growth from last year. It’s more growth than any Midwestern state except Missouri (at 3.1 percent but only 54,000 jobs) saw last year.

"Jobs in clean energy grew two times faster than overall job growth in the state," said CEEM Executive Director Gregg Mast. "That’s a strong point that clean energy is good for businesses but also good for our economy."

The report considered jobs in different sectors of the clean energy industry, from renewable energy and clean fuels to energy storage and workers developing or installing energy efficient systems. The latter is the largest sector, employing more than 44,000 people. However, the sector that saw the most growth is renewable energy at 16.5 percent (1,026 new jobs).


Micah Johnson, operations manager at Solar Connections Inc. in Rochester, said those state trends are being reflected in the spreading popularity of solar energy in local communities.

"The demand for solar has never been higher," he said. "Word has kind of spread that this isn’t a fringe technology; this isn’t for doomsday preppers out in the woods. This is an everyday mainstream technology that works."

According to Clean Energy Technology’s website, Southeast Minnesota is home to 2,569 clean energy jobs, 333 of which are in renewable energy. And in The Solar Foundation’s 2017 solar job census, Minnesota was second in the nation for overall growth in solar jobs at 48.2 percent, just less than Delaware’s 51 percent.

At Solar Connections, that growth is tangible and felt. The business has hired seven people since the beginning of the year, including four people to fill newly added positions, bringing their current staff to 16 employees.

"We’ve grown every year," Johnson said. "The fact that we’ve added four [jobs] and the year’s not over yet, that’s 25 percent growth."

That kind of expansion of solar and other renewable energy companies and providers should have a significant impact on state and local economies, Johnson said, particularly since Minnesota doesn’t produce fossil fuels.

"Other than renewable energy like wind, solar and wood, we import 100 percent of our energy," Johnson said. "Imagine if we could keep just five percent of that spending. ... All of that money is going to circulate in the local economy because only local people can install solar panels. You can’t outsource that."

The continuing growth of solar energy in Minnesota bucks regional trends, the report states, which notes most Midwestern states shed solar jobs after companies completed projects in 2016 to qualify for expiring tax credits. Johnson said bipartisan support for a continuing renewable energy push has helped Minnesota’s solar remain strong.


"We have state legislators that are starting to realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute, these fossil fuel companies aren’t spending any of their profits in Minnesota,’" Johnson said. "They’re realizing this solar industry is good for Minnesota and it’s good for jobs."

Mast agreed, citing strong clean energy policies as a contributor to the continuing growth, which currently sees Minnesota’s solar energy jobs growing at 18 percent.

"There’s no question that we need to continue that policy leadership and prioritize the transition to a clean, affordable and reliable energy system," Mast said.

With industry leaders predicting a clean energy job growth rate as high as 4.6 percent for 2018, Minnesotans should feel secure in the knowledge they’re one of the brightest, greenest and cleanest bulbs in the pack throughout the entire Midwest.

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