Solar jobs drop for second straight year

Source: David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Employment at U.S. solar companies declined in 2018 for the second year in a row, as the hangover from a nasty tariff battle outweighed overall growth in the economy.

Today, the Solar Foundation reported in its annual census that the nation employs 242,000 people in solar jobs, far more than the coal or nuclear industries but 18,000 fewer than two years ago.

The number of jobs last year dropped 3.2 percent compared with 2017, after a decline of 3.8 percent the year before that.

The chief culprit, said companies responding to the census, was the tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on imported solar panels and cells in early 2018 (Greenwire, Sept. 13, 2018). Even more than the tariffs themselves, it was the long period of uncertainty before them that chilled the production pipeline and led to layoffs.

Looking forward to 2019, employers are now more optimistic. They expect hiring will lead to a 7 percent uptick in jobs this year.

The states with the largest solar sectors suffered the biggest losses last year. California lost 9,500 jobs, and Massachusetts lost 1,300 jobs. Employment rolls shrank by fewer than a thousand people each in North Carolina, Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia and Hawaii.

Meanwhile, solar employment increased in 29 states. Florida added more than 1,700 jobs, propelling it to a new ranking as the second-largest solar employer behind California, while Illinois brought on 1,300 solar positions. Other states saw smaller but significant gains, including Texas, New York, Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Virginia and Tennessee.

In California, which is home to about 40 percent of the country’s solar capacity, jobs were hammered by the tariffs. Another factor, the study said, was that the state is more on track to meet its renewable portfolio standards after several years of progress. Also, renewables procurement became confused as more of the state’s localities took control over their own energy portfolio, a status known as community choice aggregation.

Other states saw policy lead to more employment.

In Illinois, the Legislature in 2016 passed the Future Energy Jobs Act, which upped the state’s renewable energy portfolio. Nevada restarted its net-metering program and passed a voter initiative to boost the state’s portfolio to 50 percent clean energy, and Florida regulators allowed residential customers to lease solar panels.

The report explored some new pools of solar jobs. For example, it measured solar employment in Puerto Rico for the first time and found almost 2,000 jobs there. Among companies whose primary work is in energy storage, it found 3,900 jobs directly tied to solar. Neither of these new job categories was included in 2018’s total of 242,000 jobs.