Is the Solar Industry Going Dark?

The solar industry employs twice as many workers as the coal industry, almost five times as many as the nuclear power industry, and nearly as many workers as the natural gas industry. However, all may not continue to be "bright" for the solar industry, according to a new report, "2017 National Solar Jobs Census," published by the Solar Foundation, a non-profit organization funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and other organizations.

In 2017, according to the survey, the number of solar jobs in the United States decreased by almost 10,000, to 250,271, a 3.8 percent reduction. It is the first decline in employment since the foundation launched its survey in 2010. Between 2010 and 2016, the industry almost tripled in size to over 260,000 in 2016.

The report cites a number of possible causes for the decline in employment in 2017, two of which are considered pivotal.

First, the decline may be seen as a natural slowing of the boom that occurred in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, in case Congress did not renew the 30 percent federal tax credit, a number of firms initiated a large number of new solar projects. As a result, in 2016, the industry added 51,000 new jobs to keep these projects on track.

Second, in early 2017, two solar installers invoked a little-known trade law, claiming that cheap prices afforded by competitors using overseas solar manufacturers had damaged their businesses. This led to talk that the Trump Administration might apply tariffs on imported panels. (Eighty percent of solar panels installed in the U.S. are manufactured abroad.) While the survey and 2017 job loss occurred before the Administration actually did impose a 30 percent tariff in late January, a number of manufacturers began raising their prices in late 2017 in anticipation of the potential tariffs, causing a slowdown in the growth of the industry. In fact, the report notes that the biggest driver of the solar industry over the last several years has been declining prices. If prices increase, a slowdown is expected.

Based on an industry survey in late 2017, the "Solar Jobs Census" projected that solar industry employment would increase 5.2 percent in 2018—from 250,271 jobs in 2017 to 263,293 jobs in 2018.

"However, this survey was completed before the new tariffs were announced in January," said Ed Gilliland, senior director of the Solar Foundation and author of the report. "Thus, it reflects uncertainty over the impact of the trade case but not the final outcome."

So, what is the expected impact of the new tariffs?

"The new tariffs will raise the cost of solar installations, which will likely reduce the growth in employment or even reduce solar employment," Gilliland said.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the industry?

"States with favorable solar policies can continue to grow their workforces," Gilliland said. "Strong public policies that encourage solar energy growth can help mitigate the impact of the tariffs."

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.