With less than a year on the job, Machias Schoen would be considered a newcomer at many companies.
Not at SolarCity.
“I’ve been here eight months, and I feel like I’m the old guy at the company,” he said.
Mr. Schoen is regional coordinator for SolarCity, a national solar panel installer with operations in Marlboro. Thanks to its leasing model – which allows homeowners and businesses to go solar with no money down – the company has grown rapidly in a short time. It had 15 employees in Massachusetts last fall. Now it has 68. And it’s looking for more, said Ed Steins, regional director.
The solar energy industry represents a small but growing part of a growing sector in the Massachusetts economy: clean energy. The sector includes 4,995 companies and 71,523 workers in Massachusetts – including 13,863 in the central part of the state.
That’s according to a new report from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state agency created in 2008 to promote clean energy.
The report, based on direct surveys with companies across the state, defines a clean energy firm as one that provides goods or services related to renewable energy, energy efficiency, alternative transportation and carbon management. It shows employment growth in a variety of jobs, from installation to manufacturing to research. The number of clean energy workers in Massachusetts, the report claims, grew more than 11 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Clean energy has been one of Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s top priorities, and his administration says the numbers in the report prove their clean-energy policies – which include a slew of tax breaks and incentives – are working.
Since the beginning of 2010, the Clean Energy Center has spent $79 million to fund clean tech startups, residential solar programs, energy efficiency and a wind technology testing facility.
“The investment is paying off in terms of significant job growth,” said Alicia Barton McDevitt, chief executive of the Clean Energy Center.
The CEC report, which attempts to capture a still-new and politically fraught industry, has been questioned by some.
Of the nearly 5,000 firms the report identifies as part of the clean energy cluster, 56 percent get at least half of their revenue from clean energy goods and services. For the other 44 percent, clean energy represents a minority of their revenue.
In counting the number of workers, the CEC included workers who spend any portion of time on clean energy work. For example, even workers who spend 10 percent of their time on clean energy, and 90 percent doing something else, are counted.
State Rep. Matthew A. Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican and co-owner of a green building company, feels the CEC is inflating the numbers. He said he has trouble believing a report from an agency that has a political agenda to promote clean energy.
“I can’t accept any self-audit,” he said. “It’s a justification of various programs and investments we’ve made.”
Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he was struck by what the report counted as job growth: It included newly created positions as well as employees in existing jobs to which clean energy responsibilities were added. Of the 7,213 “new” jobs added over the past year, 26 percent were existing positions, according to the report.
“That number is inflated by 26 percent,” Mr. Widmer said. “It’s a questionable number.”
Even so, he said, the clean energy sector appears to be growing in Massachusetts, though it remains a small part of the overall economy.
Ms. Barton McDevitt defended the numbers and said the CEC was right to include all workers who play a role in the clean energy sector.
“We took a conservative approach,” she said. “Then we used rigorous scientific methodology.”
By conservative, she means BW Research Partnership Inc., the firm hired to write the report, made tens of thousands of phone calls to potential clean energy companies, then eliminated all the companies that didn’t fit the CEC’s exact definition of a clean energy firm.
BW Research Vice President Philip G. Jordan said researchers started with a long list of companies gathered from various clean energy associations. They called all of those companies, but ended up excluding many. Then they called a random sampling of Massachusetts companies in other sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, sales and research and development, to find out if those firms were doing any clean energy work.
“It’s too easy to overcount these jobs,” Mr. Jordan said. For example, while a Brookings Institution report on the national “clean economy” counted public bus drivers, with the thinking that public transportation helps reduce fuel emissions, the CEC report did not. CEC did count mechanics who repair alternative fuel vehicles.
Both reports counted jobs in energy efficiency, a growth area in Massachusetts. Worcester-based World Energy Solutions Inc., which has traditionally run energy procurement auctions, added energy efficiency to its business last year. It hired 14 employees to work in efficiency, said Dan Mees, vice president of communications. He said World Energy was not contacted for this year’s CEC survey.
Although energy efficiency does not necessarily involve clean energy – a business could limit its energy use, but still get its energy from dirty sources – state officials say efficiency is a critical piece of the clean energy economy.
Compared to the CEC, the Brookings Institution defined the clean economy much more broadly, including any company that produces a good or service that has an environmental benefit.
“That would include trash collection, recycling, drivers and employees of public transportation agencies,” said Jonathan Rothwell, a senior research associate at Brookings. “We counted all trash collection with the idea that if garbage was left on the street, it would be bad for the environment.”
By this method, Brookings counted 63,523 clean jobs in Massachusetts in 2010. In “cleantech,” Brookings counted 5,039 jobs. That’s far below the roughly 60,000 clean energy jobs the CEC counted for 2010 using a similar definition.
Mr. Rothwell said Brookings didn’t include companies with five or fewer employees, and so may have undercounted workers in clean technology.
Though the numbers vary from study to study, the trend is the same. The clean energy industry is growing. That growth has a lot to do with government subsidies, which make things like solar panel installations more affordable for homeowners and businesses.
“As of now, we’re sustained through incentives,” said John Pitcavage, regional manager for Endless Mountain Solar, a solar energy company in Westboro. “Once the incentives go away, solar is still a fairly expensive technology.”
Incentives for purchasers of solar panel systems include a 30 percent federal tax credit, plus state tax credits and grants.
Richard K. Sullivan Jr., state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, noted that mature industries like oil also receive government subsidies. He said public money is better spent helping to grow young industries like solar and wind.
“We think we’ve got the incentives correct right now,” he said. “One of the most important things is to be sending a strong signal to the industry that our incentives are here and they’re going to be here for a reasonable period of time into the future.”
Mr. Beaton, the state representative, said he would like to see less money go to subsidizing installation projects and more go to research and development. More research will ultimately lead to better and cheaper products for consumers, he said.
As for the incentives that are in place today, Mr. Beaton is skeptical. He filed an amendment to an energy bill that passed this summer that established a commission to take “an independent look” at the state’s energy programs.
The commission’s task? Another report.
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