PolitiFact: Job count elusive for Georgia’s solar energy industry

There are about 120,000 solar energy jobs in the United States, but only 1,700 of them are in Georgia. -- Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols during Twitter town hall chat May 13

Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols recently took a different approach to hear from Georgians — a Twitter town hall meeting.

Some of our most interesting fact-checking claims have come from the social media site that has an estimated 200 million users, so we were curious to see what Echols had to say.

One statement involving job growth in a particular sector of Georgia’s economy caught our attention.

“Nationwide, approximately 120K #solarjobs (more than coal miners), but in #GA we have about 1,700 solar jobs,” he wrote.

PolitiFact Georgia wanted to find out whether Echols was right. Or was there some information that clouded his claim?

The Public Service Commission oversees Georgia’s energy industry, among others. In recent years, the voices of those who believe solar energy should be more aggressively explored has grown and become more vocal in Georgia.

Count Echols among those voices.

“Solar is a peaking resource,” Echols wrote in one recent Twitter post.

Echols included a Web link in his tweet about the number of people employed in the solar industry. The link came from the Solar Foundation, which does research to educate and spread the gospel of solar energy. In November, the foundation released its third annual National Solar Jobs Census. The report was put together by the foundation, Cornell University and BW Research, a public opinion research firm that focuses on workforce development.

The report says there are nearly 120,000 Americans directly employed by the solar industry. In Georgia, however, the tally was 800 jobs, less than half of what Echols said on Twitter.

Echols told us via email that he made a mistake, and he posted a correction on his Twitter page the same day we contacted him.

“CORRECTION from town hall,” he wrote. “Typo on #solarjobs in #ga - not 1,700, actually 800! room to grow!”

We reached out to a few other sources on this issue to see whether anyone else had verifiable data on solar energy jobs in Georgia.

Georgia’s Labor Department does not have a specific jobs count because employment is confidential in the solar electric power generation industry, a spokeswoman told us.

James Marlow, the founder and chief executive officer of Radiance Solar, a solar installation company in Atlanta, said the estimate of 1,700 jobs for Georgia may still be correct.

“My estimate is that there are 135 to 150 solar companies or firms doing focused work in solar in Georgia,” said Marlow, whose company has 12 full-time employees and 10 contractors.

He said Georgia Power is adding workers to its solar workforce. He also mentioned some companies that specialize in solar energy and pointed out that there are accountants, attorneys and training companies. Combined, Marlow said, they “make up a significant worker base.”

Shan Arora, project manager at Southface, an Atlanta-based nonprofit company that promotes ways to make homes and businesses more energy-efficient, said it is difficult to accurately track how many people are employed in the solar industry in Georgia.

Arora is working on a Georgia clean energy industries census that would include that statistic. It’s hard to track down some businesses and gather jobs data, he said. Southface has 150 solar industry companies mapped on its website. Its list includes some electricians, plumbers and builders that were not compiled by the foundation, he said. The foundation has some solar companies on its list that Arora said he was initially unaware of. He hopes to have the census ready by early 2014.

“The solar industry is bigger than I thought it was,” Arora said. “To pinpoint how many jobs there are is very difficult.”

Our conclusion:

Echols wrote that there are about 120,000 solar energy jobs in the United States and 1,700 of them are in Georgia. The website he cited to come up with the Georgia number actually said the total was 800 jobs. Echols wrote a correction on Twitter after we noticed the discrepancy. Such estimates are hard.

Since he apparently got the first part correct, but erred about Georgia, we rate his claim Half True.



Twitter posts by Tim Echols, public service commissioner, May 13 & 15, 2013

Emails from Tim Echols, public service commissioner, May 15, 2013

Emails from Lauren Staley, spiokeswoman, Georgia Department of Labor, May 15, 2013

Email from James Marlow, chief executive officer, Radiance Solar, May 15, 2013

Solar Foundation map of jobs by state, thesolarfoundation.org/solarstates

Telephone interview with Shan Arora, project manager, Southface, May 15, 2013

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