La Plata County has nearly 800 people working in the clean energy sector, according to a recent report based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information.
“That doesn’t seem far reaching to me when I think about all the projects we’ve done over the years, and the jobs they’ve brought,” said Laurie Dickson, executive director for Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency, known as 4CORE.
“There’s just a big network to make it all work.”
In January, Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national nonpartisan business group, released the Clean Jobs Colorado report, which found about 62,000 people across the state worked in the clean energy sector in 2015.
The report is based on data taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as a survey of hundreds of businesses across Colorado.
“This report has been a long time coming,” said Susan Nedell, E2’s Colorado-based advocate. “It really shows that clean jobs in Colorado are being driven by all the good policy we’ve had in place, and how it makes the economy more robust, including small counties like La Plata County.”
Broken down by clean energy sectors, the report says of Colorado’s 62,000 jobs, 65 percent are in energy efficiency, 22.6 percent in renewable energy, 5 percent in fuels, 4 percent in motor vehicles and 3.5 percent in storage/smart grid.
The E2 report says nearly every county, congressional district and state legislative district is home to a clean energy workforce, with the top 10 in Denver, Arapahoe, Jefferson, Adams, Douglass, Boulder, Larimer, Weld, El Paso and Mesa counties.
Yet, La Plata County hangs in with those larger metro areas, according to the report.
In Boulder County, with a population of 319,372, there are 2,756 jobs in the clean energy sector. In La Plata County, with a population of 54,688, there’s 783 jobs in clean energy.
That’s 14.3 jobs per 1,000 residents in La Plata County compared to Boulder County’s 8.6 jobs per 1,000 residents.
4CORE’s Dickson said that tally is likely attributable to the number of businesses, contractors, auditors – to name a few – that all take part in making clean energy work in Southwest Colorado.
For example, if homeowners are considering installing solar panels, they might hire an energy auditor to look at different components of their home that also might save in energy costs, which can bring jobs to electricians or efficient lighting, heating or insulation businesses.
Local businesses prosperJohn Shaw, owner of Shaw Solar, said his company employs 10 full-time workers, and during peak season, an additional four part-time workers. Coming off a record year of 52 installations in 2016 he said the uptick in clean energy jobs can be attributed to a number of factors.
“It’s mainly because the cost has come down significantly, but I also think people are taking climate change more seriously,” Shaw said. “It’s more of an effort, which requires more employees, to make that shift to renewables.”
The E2 report points out that most clean energy companies in Colorado are small, with nearly 88 percent of the firms employing less than 50 staff members. And the same can be said in La Plata County, where there are a handful of solar companies with a limited number of workers.
At Flatrock Solar, owner Matt Helms said in 2016 he employed five seasonal workers, mostly young, college graduates who are interested in solar and other forms of renewable energy.
“They see solar as something they believe in as well as the growth potential for a career down the road,” Helms said. “In the past, I’ve had employees move to larger areas and get full-time employment with larger companies.”
Curtis Jackson, owner of Solar Today and Tomorrow, said although he probably operates the smallest solar installation company in La Plata County, he’s still able to employ one full-time and one part-time employee.
“Last year was very good,” said Jackson, estimating the company installed somewhere around 20 solar units. “And 2017, based on job leads, looks very promising.”
And Frank Waggoner, who started Endless Energy Systems in 1978, said he has seen substantial growth the past few years. His company, which employs six people, mostly installs wood and gas stoves, as well as venting systems.
“We have people that call here all the time looking for jobs that want to get in the industry,” Waggoner said. “But it’s not like being a carpenter or contractor. It takes so many different skills and experience.”
Promising but uncertain futureThe cost of installing solar has dramatically decreased in recent years, allowing a whole new demographic of people access to a cleaner form of energy, said Shaw of Shaw Solar.
And while the E2 report anticipates a 2 percent growth in clean energy jobs this year, Shaw and others think that may be an understatement, given the huge capacity for growth and the availability of jobs that come with it.
Yet concerns linger as President Donald Trump, who has promised a rebirth of fossil fuel energy, takes office.
“I don’t know what this administration and Congress are focusing on exactly,” Shaw said. “I’m not saying they are going to change policies (that helps boost renewables), but I wouldn’t say it’s totally safe either.”
One of those policies is the renewable portfolio standard, which requires investor-owned utilities to source 30 percent of electricity from renewables. The measure is set to expire in 2020 and needs further support, said E2’s Nedell.
“Clean energy jobs have been growing, but it needs to be backed up by policy,” she said.
“Clean energy is a technology, and when the price of technology goes down, the industry hires. Whereas when the price of a commodity like coal or natural gas goes down, they fire. These jobs are being created by renewables are really stable and diverse.”
In other areas of Southwest Colorado, the E2 report says there are 150 clean energy jobs in Archuleta County, 177 jobs in Montezuma, 311 in Montrose County, 16 in San Juan County and 86 in San Miguel County.