Solar’s Rise Lifted Blue-Collar Workers. Now They’re Worried About Trump.

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Image courtesy of The Washington Post

This article was originally published at The Washington Post.

Mike Catanzaro, a solar installer with a high school diploma, likes to work with his hands under the clear Carolina sky. That’s why he supported President Trump, a defender of blue-collar workers. But the 25-year-old sees Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement as a threat to his job.

“I’m a little nervous about it. The solar business is blowing up and that’s great for a lot of people around here,” Catanzaro said, just after switching on an 86-panel array atop a brick apartment building.

“I was in favor of Trump, which I might regret now,” he said. “I just don’t want solar to go down the wrong path.”

While some employed in particular industries have celebrated the U.S. exit from the Paris agreement, the responses of workers such as Catanzaro add a considerable wrinkle to Trump’s promises that scrapping the accords could save millions of people “trapped in poverty and joblessness.”

The more complicated truth, experts say, is that while there could well be some winners — such as workers in the coal industry — the Paris departure embodies the government’s abandonment of a suite of policies that promised to create hundreds of thousands of  jobs at the same time as fighting climate change.

About 370,000 people work for solar companies in the United States, with the majority of them employed in installations, according to the Department of Energy. More than 9,500 solar jobs have cropped up in North Carolina alone, the study found. That’s more than natural gas (2,181), coal (2,115) and oil generation of electric power (480) combined.

The growth followed federal government tax credits and other supports, under President Barack Obama.

The country today has roughly 51,000 coal mining jobs, a sharp fall from 89,400 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest jobs report, out Friday, showed coal mining added 400 jobs in May.

Not everyone in the renewable industry will be affected by the departure from the Paris accord. Major players in the power industry, such as Duke Energy, a utility based in Charlotte that has heavily relied on coal in the past, say they remain committed to moving away from the older, more polluting sources of energy.

But Trump’s move could be devastating for small-scale operators like Catanzaro’s employer.

Catanzaro, 25, quit college after his first semester and has been as a technician in the solar industry for most of the time since then, most recently doing electrician’s work. He found his current job at Accelerate Solar five months ago on Craigslist.

“It’s the energy of the future,” Catanzaro said. “I mean, really: It’s electricity from the sun. It’s self-sustaining.”

Solar is a rare expanding blue-collar opportunity in North Carolina, said Jason Jolley, an economics professor at Ohio University who grew up in the state.

The state’s traditional blue-collar sources of employment have all declined since the nineties, in part because of cheaper labor abroad.

Chris Verner, co-founder of Accelerate Solar and Catanzaro’s employer, got his start as a college student in Vermont, setting up a business after graduation that took advantage of green energy rebates under an Obama-era stimulus package.

He moved to North Carolina five years ago to launch Accelerate Solar with $3,000. The company’s sales last year hit $5.2 million, Verner said.

He said he is hoping to double his 20-person installation team this year.

Verner’s experience reflects the growth of the solar industry across the United States.