Solar industry to lose over a third of jobs by July — report

Source: By David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, May 18, 2020

The leading trade group for U.S. solar energy estimated today that the disruption from the coronavirus would cause the industry to lose 38% of its workforce in the first half of this year.

Gloomy numbers from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) come as it lobbies to get aid for the sector included in upcoming recovery bills from Congress.

The study, extrapolated from a survey of 600 SEIA member companies, says that the equivalent of 114,000 jobs could be lost through June, returning the workforce to the size it was six years ago, when solar was a much smaller part of the energy landscape.

Job losses cited by SEIA are higher than in another analysis, based on federal data, that came out last week but only covered COVID-19 impacts through the end of April (Energywire, May 14). That study from California-based firm BW Research Partnership saw 95,600 lost jobs in all renewable energy industries since the beginning of the pandemic.

A whirlwind of COVID-19 troubles are besetting solar, including delays in getting parts and permits, gun-shy investors, and virus-related lockdowns that have made it difficult to install arrays at homes and businesses (Energywire, April 8).

SEIA also projected a 35% decline in U.S. solar installations this year and a loss of $3.2 billion in solar investment.

Not all is bad news in solar, however.

Sunnova Energy International Inc., a solar and storage provider based in Houston, reported last week that its revenues and number of customers had risen in the first three months of the year, even as the virus crisis started to chill the industry. That makes Sunnova the latest solar firm to record a decent start to 2020 (Energywire, May 8).

The solar industry so far has made few inroads to getting help from Congress.

The $3 trillion relief bill passed by the House on Friday — and virtually certain to be ignored by the Senate — includes no particular provisions to aid renewable energy.

Abigail Ross Hopper, the CEO of SEIA, said on a webinar with the industry group’s members on Friday that it will be June at the earliest before such aid is possible.

Solar companies want a modification to the federal solar investment tax credit that would allow investors to take the benefits as cash instead. The value of tax credits is highly uncertain, because many investors are unsure if they’ll have enough taxable income to use them (Energywire, March 27).

SEIA also wants “safe harbor” provisions that would extend deadlines to harvest tax credits, a move the Trump administration has said it is willing to consider.

SEIA’s job numbers represent not just layoffs, but also furloughs and the loss of part-time positions that add up to full-time losses, said spokesman Dan Whitten.

The group produced a precise picture of job losses, including, for example, the loss of 4,002 positions in Arizona and 35,687 in California. Those are just estimates, Whitten explained, based on a formula SEIA uses that accounts for its member survey and the effect of lockdowns on states’ economies.

In some past eras of challenge, like a battle over tariffs in 2017, the solar industry has ended up faring better than SEIA initially predicted (Energywire, Dec. 16, 2019).