Why Cheaper Oil Prices Help Solar Tech

January 13, 2016, 1:54 PM UTC
Technicians working on solar panels
Photograph Sam Diephuis -- Getty Images

You’d think the price of U.S. oil falling below $30 a barrel for the first time in more than a decade would be bad news for “green” energy. With oil and gas so cheap, why would anyone pay for more expensive, less efficient fuel sources?

If you thought that, you’d be wrong. And you be wrong for ignoring three factors: technology, politics, and emotion.

As Fortune’s Katie Fehrenbacher reported Tuesday, the U.S. solar industry added 35,000 jobs in 2015, bringing the total to more than 200,000. The counterintuitive bit here is that the same factor accounting for a decline in oil-industry jobs—falling prices—is accounting for the increase in solar employment. Falling oil prices make exploration and production of oil less profitable. Cheaper solar panels make that technology more attractive to consumers and the businesses serving them, thus driving adoption—and employment.

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Solar-panel technology improvements have been on a Moore’s Law-like curve for years but only now are getting to the point where the technology is commercially viable. (Interesting fact: The Walton family of Walmart fame has been investing for eons in this cost-efficiency curve through publicly traded First Solar. I wrote about the family and the company in 2014.) State, local and federal governments have done plenty to subsidize solar over the years, which also has helped bring the cost down for consumers.

WATCH: Google explains how solar energy helps save money.

The cherry on the sundae for solar has been that using it makes people feel good. What could be more reassuring than harnessing the energy of the sun to power your electric toothbrush? No technology is perfect, but one that emits no greenhouse gases is close, especially at a competitive price.

Fehrenbacher wrote that the oil and gas industry still employs millions in the U.S., making solar a blip in terms of employment as well electricity generation. But “clean” solar is on the rise, and efficiency generally is one of the factors for the plunging price of oil—with a giant assist from the slowing Chinese economy.

With apologies to those who work in the fossil-fuel business, cheaper, cleaner fuel feels like today’s win-win.

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