HARRISONBURG — Taylor Balac installed solar panels on his Harrisonburg home in March and immediately saw a lower electric bill — and by April that bill was gone.

“From May until now we haven’t had an electric bill,” he said.

Balac, 30, is a graduate of James Madison University’s Integrated Science and Technology program with a bachelor of science in renewable energy.

His home was one stop on a self-guided tour Saturday of solar-powered houses sponsored by the JMU Office of Advancement of Sustainable Energy, which hosted a conference on solar earlier in the day.

Balac has worked in the solar industry for five years and is part of growing green energy workforce that federal agencies expect to continue to expand.

People are increasingly adding solar panels to their homes, Matthias Clymer, a Realtor with Funkhouser Real Estate, said in an email on Friday.

“Some people find them very desirable for energy efficiency and for environmental reasons,” Clymer said. “Therefore, they could increase the interest [and/or] demand and in turn, the ultimate purchase price of a house.”

However, Clymer said he would not recommend a homeowner equip solar to a house they are flipping just for profit.

“Overall, I recommend installing solar if you plan on remaining in the house for a while and will be able [to] to benefit from the cost savings,” he said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also sees workers getting the green — as in more cash — as the sector is anticipated to grow rapidly over the next seven years.

Of the 10 identified renewable energy occupations, half have faster than average employment growth, according to bureau data.

Environmental engineering technicians have the highest expected growth with 13% and annual job openings of 1,700, with an entry level education of an associate degree.

The median income for environmental energy technicians is $50,560 — well above the all occupations median annual wage of $38,640.

Only two of the 10 green energy occupations, forest and conservation workers and technicians, fall below the all occupations annual median wage. Those two jobs are also the only two jobs in the report that are expected to see a decline in growth and slower than average growth, respectively, over the next seven years.

The largest projected annual jobs are for environmental science and protection technicians, with over 4,600 new openings annually until 2026.

But these specific jobs still account only for 1% of the U.S. energy workforce.

In 2016, 1.9 million jobs were in the whole energy sector. The largest was oil, with over 515,000 employees, followed by natural gas, with over 398,235 workers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and Employment.

Solar was 25,000 jobs short of natural gas, employing 373,807 people — more than double coal’s 160,119 jobs.

By 2018, 151,700 new energy jobs were created, with the highest number in wind and natural gas with a total workforce of 111,700 and 113,000, respectively, according to U.S. Department of Energy and Employment.

Fossil fuels saw an increase of 52,000 jobs to total 1,127,600 in 2018 while solar employment declined for the second year in a row to employ just over 242,000.

Steve Frysinger, JMU science professor and coordinator of environmental programs, said that the school offers a number of courses with green energy qualifications.

“I would not be able to hazard a guess on students who graduate with an environmental credential,” Frysinger said, adding it may be in the low hundreds.

However, he said that the number of students who are in green energy specific programs does fluctuate with the political climate, with more students taking the courses the friendlier the green energy the landscape is.

Solar is more popular in Virginia due to the difficulties in siting wind turbine sites as well as prices, Frysinger said.

“I think we’re going to see solar grow in a strong way in Virginia especially because the cost of solar technology is declining rapidly,” he said.

Solar prices fell drastically in early 2018 after President Donald Trump announced tariffs, Balac said.

Many businesses that were looking at large solar contracts shied away due to the increased risk from the tariffs, he said, which caused a sudden increase of supply in materials — thus lowering prices for private homeowners interested in solar.

The six-month drop in price hurt small solar providers, Balac said.

Increasingly low prices for solar panels paired with tax credits have enticed more people to turn to solar, according to Balac, who believes the statistics about the growth in the green energy sector.

“The statistics reveal what’s actually happening,” he said.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMunroDNR

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