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The Efficiency Dilemma: Examining Energy Sector Jobs and Electricity Generation in the US

Solar energy is the least efficient utility-scale electric generation source in terms of electricity produced per employee.

In 2021, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Electric Power Annual report identified that the United States generated about 4.11 trillion kWh of electricity at utility-scale facilities. Approximately 61% of this electricity generation was from fossil fuels, while 19% was from nuclear energy, and 20% was from renewable energy sources. Small-scale solar photovoltaic systems generated an additional 49 billion kWh of electricity in 2021.

Then, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy & Employment Report revealed the inner machinations: the energy sector employed 7.8 million workers in 2021, up 4% from the previous year. Solar power was responsible for the largest share of power sector employment, while energy efficiency represented over 2.1 million jobs, an increase of 58,000 from the year before. The construction industry had the largest number of electricity employees, and wholesale trade grew the most by percentage. Nuclear was the only technology to lose jobs.

But what about the perspective of employee efficiency? Solar is the least efficient sector, generating only 0.3 million kWh per employee. Coal, nuclear, and natural gas are the most efficient generating 12.7 million, 14 million, and 14.2 million kWh per employee, respectively.

The fact that solar energy employs nearly 40% of all energy sector workers but only produces 3% of the nation’s electricity (as of 2022) is a cause for concern. It is the least efficient energy sector in terms of electricity generated per employee, with only 0.3 million kWh per employee. This indicates that solar energy is not yet cost-effective compared to other energy sources, as it requires a large number of workers to produce a relatively small amount of electricity.

Million kWh/EmployeeIndustry
14.20Natural Gas

Despite massive government support and incentives for the past few decades, solar energy only generates 6.4% of utility-scale power in the American Southwest, despite having the sunniest skies in America. The failure of solar energy can be attributed to its fundamental problem of being relatively weak and suffering from low energy density. Solar energy also faces the challenge of intermittency and the need for expensive batteries or conventional power plants to prevent blackouts.

From the perspective of jobs per kilowatt hour, solar energy is inefficient, unreliable, and expensive. On the other side, natural gas and nuclear lead the way with the highest rate of electric generation per employee.

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