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Clean energy sector jobs in Illinois and Missouri are rising

Microgrid installed two solar arrays at Busch Stadium.
Microgrid Energy
Microgrid installed two solar arrays at Busch Stadium.

Nearly 600,000 people in the Midwest are working in the clean energy sector and that number likely will continue to rise, according to advocates for the industry. 

The nonprofit groupsClean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs released a report Thursdaythat demonstrated a significant increase in the past year in the number of people who work in fields such as wind and solar power and energy auditing. Illinois led the region's clean energy sector growth by adding nearly 120,000 jobs, largely in the area of energy efficiency. Missouri showed growth in multiple areas, including renewable energy, which saw jobs grow by 14.5 percent in the last year.

Clean energy groups say the rise in employment is due to the falling costs of renewable energy and increasing support from state legislators. 

"It's also clear that states are taking a leading role in developing clean technologies because policymakers see that clean energy is a really good job creation plan," said Gail Parson, director of member and state engagement at Environmental Entrepreneurs. 

In the case of St. Louis-based solar energy company Microgrid Energy, growth has been tied to state policies and the affordability of solar energy, vice president of business development Steve O'Rourke said. Loading...

When Microgrid started in 2009, "there was virtually no demand for solar," O'Rourke said. Solar energy projects often come with an upfront cost and in the late 2000s a client would have expected to wait 25 years to see a return on investment.

In 2013, the state-mandated rebate funded by Missouri utilities cut that wait to just a couple years. Then, Microgrid's employment was at its highest, at 50 workers. After the rebate no longer became available, employment fell at the company. Microgrid employs 20 but expects to add workers, partly due to new policies that support renewable energy.

"Within two years, we'll [have] a 50 percent increase in the number of employees," O'Rourke said. "We'll go from 20 to 30 easily."

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Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.