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The solar energy business is growing fast. Solar panel prices dropped more than half in the last four years. But government subsidies expire soon, and natural gas prices also keep dropping. Those things make the future of solar a little hazy, but for now, the industry is hiring. NPR's Jeff Brady reports a new survey shows more than 31,000 solar jobs were added last year.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Among those who became a solar industry worker last year is 54-year-old Charlie Wilde of Denver.
CHARLIE WILDE: It's really hard work, especially in the summertime when you're on those hot roofs.
BRADY: Wilde finished a training last spring, got certified and then worked temp jobs as an installer. Now he's starting his own business called Ecology Solar.
WILDE: I'm launching a marketing plan this month, and I'll be targeting people in my neighborhood of Denver, Colorado, and then expand out from there as the business grows.
BRADY: He'll work on his own. But for people like Wilde, with experience, the pay is good. Andrea Luecke heads The Solar Foundation and says installers make about $22 an hour.
ANDREA LUECKE: People in sales positions are making about $40 an hour. So these are good jobs. These are highly desirable jobs and jobs that are helping to positively contribute to the U.S. economy.
BRADY: Luecke says there's work for roofers, electricians and engineers, too. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't track solar industry employment, but the agency cites figures from Luecke's foundation. It released a census of solar industry employment last week.
LUECKE: We have nearly 174,000 solar jobs in the U.S., which is 22 percent more than last year and 86 percent more than when we first started to track jobs in 2010.
BRADY: Luecke says solar makes up less than 1 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. today. Two-thirds of the country's power still comes from coal and natural gas. Luecke says that leaves plenty of room for growth in coming years. There are a few big issues that could affect the solar industry's future though. Solar companies still rely on a 30 percent federal tax credit to compete with those more-established fossil fuels. That credit is scheduled to end in about two years. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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