Lighting the Way

When it comes to the business of solar, Nevada appears to have a bright future

Even the iconic  Welcome to Las Vegas sign has gone solar. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Even the iconic
Welcome to Las Vegas sign has gone solar. | Photo by Jon Estrada

For years, state leaders have been stressing the importance of diversifying our economy. But one of the best opportunities may be shining right in our faces. According to the Solar Foundation’s 2014 State Solar Jobs Census, Nevada led the country in solar jobs growth and solar jobs per capita.

“Today, there are 109 solar companies at work throughout the value chain in Nevada, employing nearly 6,000 people and pumping more than $500 million annually into the state’s economy,” says Ken Johnson, vice president of communications for the Solar Energies Industry Association.

SolarCity, one of Nevada’s leading solar companies, has done much to increase those numbers, with more than 1,200 employees in our state. The 8-year-old business has been expanding in Southern Nevada since 2013, with administrative offices in Town Square, as well as operations centers in Henderson and North Las Vegas.

“Solar creates more jobs per unit of energy than any other form of energy,” says Jonathan Bass, vice president of communications for SolarCity. “The jobs are created where the installations are occurring: local construction jobs. It’s a new category of jobs that can’t be outsourced.” It’s not just construction, either, but also sales, service, financing and what Bass calls “the software and technology piece.”

Before founding SolarCity, brothers Lyndon Rive (CEO) and Peter Rive (chief technical officer) ran a software company and brought that tech expertise to their new endeavor. “We’ve developed a wide range of software specifically for solar,” says Bass, noting the various forms of management and planning software, as well as myriad apps that customers can use.

And because solar and tech are both young industries, they’re ripe for new ideas, expansion and collaboration. “Electricity generation is an industry that hasn’t had a lot of innovation over the last 75 years,” Bass says. He notes that it’s one of the few industries whose model has remained unchanged: “Electricity is produced from coal or natural gas or nuclear energy in a centralized location, and distributed across the grid.”

Solar is a different paradigm, with much of the power generated where it’s used. At SolarCity, that power ends up getting stored in batteries, which are produced by Tesla Motors. Tesla boss Elon Musk is chairman of SolarCity (and a cousin of the Rive brothers) and a “really valuable strategic counsel for the company,” Bass says. As Musk builds his much-publicized Northern Nevada battery factory, some of the product may wind up not in cars, but in Las Vegas homes.

Judging by SolarCity’s employment numbers and our spot atop the Solar Foundation’s job census report, Nevada is clearly at the front end of the solar-energy movement—heck, even the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign went solar last year.

“Nevada has a chance to be one of the most important solar markets in the United States,” Bass says. “We’re only at the beginning on the growth curve.”