Story highlights

Solar energy is now a $6 billion industry

Its employment base grew 6.8% the past year, to more than 100,000 jobs

Solyndra controversy an isolated affair, industry official said

Los Angeles CNN  — 

Despite the Solyndra collapse that has tarnished solar energy, the industry has grown into “a major economic force” with a job base that expanded 6.8% the past year, nearly 10 times faster than the overall economy, industry representatives said Tuesday.

The solar business is now a $6 billion industry, up 300% from 2006, said officials with the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with solar energy industry.

With 100,237 jobs as of August, solar employers expect their workforce to grow 24% next year, according to the foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2011, completed in partnership with BW Research Partnership’s Green LMI Consulting division and Cornell University.

“It’s great news,” said Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation. “Despite a struggling economy and the worst recession since the Depression and despite the Solyndra debacle, the industry is experiencing record-breaking trade numbers, record-breaking installed capacity, and record-breaking private investment.”

Solyndra Inc. was once considered a model “green” company producing state-of-the-art solar panels, but it is now at the center of congressional scrutiny and a FBI probe after the Fremont, California, firm filed for bankruptcy in late August and put more than 1,000 people out of work, even though it received $535 million in federal loan guarantees.

The bankruptcy leaves the government unlikely to get back the money it loaned. President Barack Obama touted the company in a visit last year.

Despite the controversy, the solar sector appears bullish, Luecke said.

“Solyndra, of course, is just one company, and they went out of business because they could no longer compete with not only Chinese manufactures but also U.S. manufacturers,” Luecke said.

“There’s nothing to indicate that the solar industry is not poised for growth, though we do need smart policy investment as all energies do,” Luecke added.

She was referring to state and federal legislation that would give “employers the confidence they need to expand their workforce,” she said.

California continued to be the national leader in solar employment, with 25,575 workers. Other states in the top 10 are Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the group said.

The study identified 17,198 solar employments sites in the United States. The survey collected data from more than 2,100 companies.

“The National Solar Jobs Census is an important reference because the previous lack of data about solar employment was presenting difficulties to policymakers and training providers,” Philip Jordan, chief business officer at BW Research Partnership, said in a statement.

Added John Bunge, associate professor in the department of statistical science at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations: “The jobs census is setting a new standard for clean energy job studies.

“The use of both primary and secondary data sources, along with careful statistical analysis, gives us high confidence in the results. We expect our rigorous methodology to be extended to econometric studies of green jobs beyond the solar industry,” he said in a statement.