Solar jobs jump, especially in South

Source: By David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A nationwide jobs survey released today found that big states in the U.S. South hired hundreds or even thousands of solar workers last year, including Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Florida, helping to reverse years of national declines.

Overall, the U.S. solar industry’s employment numbers grew by 2.3% to almost 250,000 jobs, according to the report from the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit that produces a national solar jobs census every year. That is solid growth but still 10,000 jobs shy of what the industry had in 2016, before a bruising tariff battle created uncertainty and caused investors to step back.

Prices for solar components declined in 2019 despite those tariffs — a sign that the solar industry hasn’t run out of ways to make its product even more competitive with coal and natural gas. More and more electric utilities are retiring coal plants because the economics of solar keep getting better (Climatewire, Jan. 23).

“We turned the corner and started an uptick of jobs after two years of decline,” said Ed Gilliland, a senior director at the Solar Foundation.

“We are turning back in the right direction,” he added.

The report had doses of bad news. For example, California lost 2,500 solar jobs last year, mostly sales positions, as solar installers gave up on selling solar systems by ringing doorbells.

But homeowners in California bought solar arrays anyway, motivated by a different force at the door: wildfires.

Solar arrays combined with energy storage are selling well in the state, as a remedy to the power shut-offs utilities are doing to avoid the threat of wildfires when it’s dry and windy. The Solar Foundation report quoted a leading solar provider, SunPower Corp., that it expects up to a quarter of its installations in 2020 to be paired with a battery system to counter blackouts.

The South’s solar jobs

The U.S. South, never a haven for solar jobs, emerged as a bright spot last year, especially to build big projects by electric utilities.

Some of the region’s most populous states registered the biggest jumps. Georgia gained over 1,000 solar jobs with a growth rate of almost 30%. Florida added 1,800 jobs for a gain of almost 18%. Virginia added almost 600 jobs, and Texas 649 jobs.

Gilliland identified two main reasons.

Electricity is cheap in these states, and solar is crossing the threshold where it’s cheap enough for utilities to choose over other forms of energy on cost alone.

The other is that the federal solar investment tax credit became less generous at the end of 2019. That prompted a wave of new projects to meet the deadline, not just in the South but around the country. These new projects, many of them large installations for electric utilities, could keep installers employed through 2021, Gilliland said.

Other Southern states fared unevenly. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina saw job growth of 10% or better, though from a low starting point. Meanwhile, Arkansas and Tennessee each lost 10% of their solar jobs, while Kentucky and North Carolina saw smaller losses.

According to the report, the U.S. Southeast has more than 45,000 solar jobs, growing 9% in 2019.

Across the country, states registered dramatic drops and rises in solar employment: a rise by more than 17% in Utah, a drop of 16% in Wyoming.

That’s because a single large project registers heavily in states with little solar to start with. “You could have one utility-scale project tip the bucket in their favor,” Gilliland said.

Manufacturing comes back

Another important number to emerge from the jobs report is that the U.S. added about 700 manufacturing jobs.

Those positions — also mostly located in the South — may add a coda to the messy solar tariff fight from early in the Trump presidency.

The proposal for tariffs was brought in 2017 by a bankrupt Georgia solar manufacturer. It invoked a little-used trade law, Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, to ask the Trump administration to place tariffs on solar imports from around the globe.

Trump approved the tariffs, touting the trade barrier as a job creator. Meanwhile, the U.S. solar industry warned that both jobs and solar installations would nose-dive (Energywire, Dec. 16, 2019).

The solar industry indeed lost manufacturing jobs in 2017 and 2018 as the tariff brawl unfolded. But now jobs are growing, particularly at a JinkoSolar Holding Co. Ltd. plant in Florida, an LG Electronics Inc. factory in Alabama and a Hanwha Q Cells Co. Ltd plant in Georgia. All were built by Asian firms to serve the U.S. market, and they were planned after the tariffs took effect.

Asked if the tariffs paved the way for these new manufacturing jobs, Gilliland said, “It could be.” He also pointed out that although the tariffs may phase out within two years, the factories are likely to churn out solar panels far longer.