With low oil prices driving massive layoffs across America’s oil fields, workers in Texas are looking to greener pastures. Rig hands, pipe fitters and equipment haulers are increasingly finding jobs within the Lone Star State’s solar power sector, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
“People joke about how it is the new boom,” Servando Sendejo, an oil field engineer, told the newspaper.
Sendejo said he was laid off last year after bouncing from one hydraulic fracturing well to the next in Texas and New Mexico. So he joined OCI Solar Power, which is operating the Alamo 6 solar farm under construction in McCamey, Texas. Sendejo said now his oil patch friends keep calling him to ask about opportunities in the solar sector.
Amid plunging oil and gas prices, the number of U.S. workers employed in oil and gas extraction and support activities dropped by more than 100,000 people from October 2014 to January 2016, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, was trading at $43.50 a barrel early Friday — a nearly 60 percent drop from its June 2014 peak of $105 a barrel.
Texas, which produces more crude oil and natural gas than any other state, has borne the brunt of the oil industry downturn. The oil bust has led to more than 84,000 layoffs in the state, the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers estimated.
The number could be higher now that Schlumberger Inc., the Houston oil-field services giant, announced it laid off another 2,000 employees during the first quarter of 2016. The company reported Thursday that earnings for the period dropped 49 percent on significantly lower sales. Schlumberger has cut 36,000 jobs, or 28 percent of its workforce, since November 2014.
But Texas is also home to one of the largest solar energy expansions in the country. Around a dozen solar projects able to generate almost 1,000 megawatts of clean electricity are in the works, enough to power roughly 165,000 homes. The state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, expects another 12,000 megawatts of solar power to come online by 2030.
The bulk of those solar projects are utility-scale installations that take advantage of Texas’ wide open spaces. Nationwide, large solar projects could account for nearly three-fourths of the growth in the U.S. solar market this year, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association said in a March report.
The U.S. solar market on the whole will grow 119 percent this year, adding 16,000 megawatts of sun-powered energy to the grid, the groups forecast. Smaller household and commercial projects are also climbing; the U.S. this week installed its millionth solar power installation, according to the advocacy group Vote Solar.
Despite the growth, America’s solar industry still isn’t large enough to cover all the jobs lost in the oil fields, the Journal noted in the Thursday feature. The solar industry is projected to add 30,000 jobs this year — only a fraction of the jobs lost in Texas and nationwide.
But as the U.S. accelerates investments in renewable energy and intensifies its fight against climate change, some oil-and-gas roughnecks are gravitating toward what they see as a growing industry: clean energy.
“Older guys in middle age say they found something where they see longevity,” Sendejo told the Journal. “The young crowd says I’m just here till the oil price comes back up and I can get that six-figure paycheck again. And next time I won’t spend it like last time.”