Although Jasper Swindle was working in a coal mine by Wyoming’s border to Montana three years ago, the Missouri native said he was curious about what it would be like to work “on the other side, for once.”
He was particularly interested in installing solar panels.
“Even when I was a coal miner, I always thought it was cool how you can harness the power of the sun,” he said.
After being laid off among hundreds of others coal miners in 2016, he returned to Springfield to become a solar panel installer with Sun Solar, a local energy-service company.
Swindle is one of many who have decided to install local panels for a living. According to 2017-19 projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, installing solar panels is the fastest-growing job in Missouri, along with eight other states. Experts say the growth coincides with increased demand in Missouri’s solar-power industry.
“I think the fact is that utility companies, independent contractors are seeing a demand for this,” said James Owen, executive director of pro-renewable-energy nonprofit Renew Missouri. “And therefore, they are trying to build more and more facilities, wind farms, more solar arrays. And that is fueling this increase in jobs.”
In 2015, Sun Solar increased its staff from around 15 to 100 people, said its CEO, Caleb Arthur. Now, he said Sun Solar now has 110 employers with around 35 installing solar panels. StraightUp Solar, a St. Louis-based solar installation company, has 65 employees, said Erin Noble, its director of business operations. That’s double the company employed last year, she said.
According to a 2018 Solar Foundation jobs report, Missouri had 2,819 solar jobs available in 2018 — an 8 percent growth from the previous year. The report’s data showed 17 other states had experienced even larger growth between 2017-18.
Owen said that a boost in hiring has stemmed from improved solar technology, which has driven down costs. According to a 2018 report from the Solar Energy Industries Association, the price of solar power has declined 43 percent in Missouri over the past five years.
And lower prices has fueled demand, said Arthur, the Sun Solar founder.
“You can now build solar and wind farms cheaper than you can build fossil-fuel-generation plants for,” he said, “and so, when you can do it on that level, you can also do it down on the homeowner, where the homeowner can go solar and have a lower solar payment from day one.”
The report also said that 2018 had the second largest number of solar panels installed in Missouri in the past decade, with 188.3 megawatts installed, compared to 16.5 the previous year.
However, unlike 2014 — when there was the most number of solar installations — most were utility-scale solar systems, commonly referred to as “solar farms,” instead of residential and commercial use.
In October, Ameren Missouri began giving customers the choice to have their home or business powered for an additional $13.95 per kilowatt-hour block. If enough people subscribed to use a one-megawatt solar facility, the state’s largest utility company said it would build one near St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
The company reached enough subscribers in less than two months, according to its report released earlier this month. As a result, Ameren will begin building the facility in March. Renew Missouri’s Owen said the results are a positive sign for the future of solar energy in the state.
“When customers show that (solar power) can be a leader for the state, I think it can be a leader for the Midwest, show that this is something that it important,” he said. “And that it will encourage utility companies to offer more programs like this that are bigger, better and stronger."
For Swindle, the coal miner-turned solar panel installer, Missourians’ demand for solar energy landed him a job that is less physically strenuous.
"In a coal mine, you are in a big haul truck, bouncing around, working crazy hours,” said Swindle, “and in the solar industry, you are working daylight hours, and you’re not beating your body up to death.”
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