Carlos Barria/ReutersAs the US makes the switch from fossil fuels like coal to renewable energy, the energy industry is experiencing a job shift, as well.
President Barack Obama highlighted how solar is outpacing coal in his final State of the Union address last night.
"On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average."
The solar industry really does employ more people than the coal industry does. In 2015, there were almost 209,000 American solar workers.
This figure, first found by the Washington Post, is according to the Solar Foundation, and includes jobs in installation, manufacturing, sales, and development of solar panels in the US.
By comparison, the coal industry employs about 66,000 people, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics's (BLS) recent finalized data from October 2015. (The BLS doesn't specifically pool together job categories in the solar industry.)
Solar jobs do pay better than "average," but not better than coal jobs. The Solar Foundation reports that the median wage per hour for those in assembly is $18, for installers is $21, for designers is $27, and for those on the business side is $29.
All of these hourly wages are higher than the median across US occupations, which was $17.09 per hour in May 2014 (the BLS' most recent data).
Mario Anzuoni/REUTERSBut across the coal mining industry, the median hourly wage was $26.80 in May 2014. And coal mining engineers make $41.46 on average. So coal miners still make more than anyone, on average, in the solar industry, partly because coal mining is much more dangerous than installing or making solar panels.
The savings Obama cites are a little more difficult to verify, though. The US Department of Energy says on its website that solar customers in New York are saving $11 million per year, while those in Arizona are saving $13 million per year. But it doesn't say where these numbers came from.
On average, Americans with solar panels on their homes save $84 a month on their electricity bills, according to Clean Power Research, and about 784,000 homes have solar panels in the US, as reported by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Taken together, Americans are likely saving "tens of millions of dollars."
One big sticking point of note is that those savings don't include the up-front cost of the system. Installing residential solar panels costs between $15,000 to $29,000 on average, according to Sunrun. It can take between four and 19 years to pay back these costs across the US.
While the rate of solar energy expansion is impressive, we still have a long way to go before renewables replace fossil fuels in the US.
Last year, solar only provided 0.39% of the energy used in the US, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Coal was still the biggest source of energy, powering 39% of Americans' electricity.
All of this just goes to show that Obama was right — and it's a sign of a big shift in the energy industry.