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Solar Energy Might Actually Survive Trump’s Fossil Fuel Revolution

America's environmental outlook under President Trump is decidedly gloomy, but if there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it's coming from the solar energy industry.

Last year, solar energy businesses created 51,000 news jobs, amounting to 260,077 total US solar workers, which marked a growth rate nearly 17 times higher than the overall national economy. The industry's boom was a 25 percent increase over 2015, and accounted for 2 percent of all American jobs that year.

These numbers come from a study commissioned by The Solar Foundation, an independent, non-industry funded nonprofit dedicated to solar energy use. The new report is the seventh produced by the organization, and documents the largest annual growth percentage of solar jobs since 2010.

"People like solar energy because it's tangible. They can envision themselves with solar on their roofs, or maybe they have neighbors with solar," Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation, told me.

"It's not this distant, far off futuristic scenario. We have solar everywhere," she added.

Solar gains are coming at a time when America is more divided than ever. A Gallup poll last year found that only 21 percent of citizens believe we're united in our values, and the disconnect is palpable in parts of the country where protests have broken out. So renewable energy's success, which relies heavily on bipartisan buy-in, is a refreshing comparison to our current political forecast. Solar jobs exist in all 50 states, and 44 of them—red and blue, alike—experienced growth last year, according to the study.

Much of solar's growth can be attributed to installation firms. These are the folks who put panels on your roof, or set up sprawling, photovoltaic solar farms in the desert, for instance. Employing more than half of the industry's workforce, installations made up more than 35 percent of America's solar energy capacity in 2016, or 14,000 megawatts. (This is still just 1.5 percent of the nation's total electricity generating capacity, however.)

Most of these projects were utility-scale, but residential and commercial installations are slated to steadily increase throughout 2017. Plummeting installation costs were primary driver of last year's growth, Luecke told me. Federal and state policies, along with tax credits, were also helpful, but to a much lesser degree.

When I asked for Luecke's opinion on solar's fate in the hands of Trump, she was cautiously optimistic.

"This year's growth is going to be tempered. Companies are reporting 10 percent growth for 2017, in part because of conservative estimates, and because we could see some changes at the federal level," she said.

Trump's stance on solar energy is mercurial. His public statements have run the gamut, but the president's allegiance ultimately lies with fossil fuels, as his "America First" energy plan makes perfectly clear.

"To begin with, the whole push for renewable energy is being driven by the wrong motivation, the mistaken belief that global climate change is being caused by carbon emissions. If you don't buy that—and I don't—then what we have is really just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves," Trump wrote in his book, Crippled America, which was published in 2015.

Last year, on the campaign trail in South Carolina, Trump remarked: "I love the concept of solar. It just doesn't work yet."

On Twitter, he repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for spending billions on stimulus efforts. The same efforts that funded solar technology R&D at universities and national laboratories; made solar energy more accessible to low-income families through federal subsidies; and loaned Tesla $465 million to produce its all-electric Model S car.

Screenshots of Donald Trump's tweets about solar energy.

Screenshots of Donald Trump's tweets about solar energy.

One thing Luecke stressed was that solar energy is supported by Republicans and Democrats, even in more rural parts of the country. Often in these places, solar can be the lowest, most reliable, and most abundant form of energy.

In recent years, we've seen Iowa, for example, take significant steps toward more utility-scale solar power. Massachusetts' Republican governor, Charlie Baker, dedicated $14 million in grant funding to make solar more accessible to critical care facilities in the state. And John Kasich, Ohio's governor and former Republican presidential candidate, vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have made clean-energy purchase mandates voluntary.

A separate report from Pew Research Center last year found that 83 percent of conservative Republicans reported wanting more solar farms across the country.

"The new administration is very jobs focused, and obviously, as the report has shown, solar is an American success story. It's a tremendous jobs creator" Luecke said. "There are a lot of signals that not all is lost—that states and locals are going to carry solar into the future."

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