The latest solar jobs census has just come out, and the news is… mixed. Here’s what the survey found, why the numbers are that way, and how we get the whole country on track.
Solar job numbers fall
The National Solar Jobs Census from The Solar Foundation is the non-profit’s annual review of “the size and scope of employment in the US solar energy industry… [and] the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of solar labor market trends in the United States.” As such, it’s a really important tool for assessing our job-creation progress in what had been, until the last two years, a key growth area within our energy sector.
For 2018, the numbers are a mixed bag. Overall numbers for people employed in solar in 2018 stood at around 242,000—down 8,000, or more than 3%, from the year before.
At the level of individual states, there have been winners and losers. California’s drop in solar employment alone (down 9,600) could account for the whole overall drop, though with 77,000 solar workers it’s still by far the biggest state for solar jobs (and #3 in solar jobs per capita). Massachusetts, which had been #2 in overall solar jobs, also lost—with 1,300 fewer people employed in solar—and dropped to #3 by that overall-solar-jobs metric.
In all, 21 states lost ground, including 4 of the top 5 solar states by installed solar capacity (California, plus North Carolina, Arizona, and New Jersey).
On the plus side, that still leaves 29 states gaining solar jobs. Those include Florida (up 1,800, to take the #2 spot for total jobs), Illinois (up 1,300), and Texas and New York (each up 700+). And the 2018 total solar jobs figure is still 16% higher than the 2015 number.
But the annual drop—the second in a row—is concerning. So the next logical question is: Why are we losing solar jobs at all?
Why solar jobs have fallen
Many of the reasons for the recent drop in solar workers are pretty clear, actually, and start at the top:
- Trump solar taxes – “Much of the decline,” says the new report, “is attributable to uncertainty over the outcome of the Section 201 trade case on solar modules and cells.” This is that solar tariff issue that was brewing for much of 2017 and finally settled in 2018, with substantial taxes on virtually all imported solar goods. Those tariffs, and particularly that uncertainty surrounding how high those taxes would be, and when they’d hit, were pretty disruptive. And, by slowing down progress with a key technology (and proven job creator), were a blow to any notions about US “energy dominance.”
- State policies – At a more local level, states were certainly another piece of the pain, with uncertainty being the enemy of investment. California was figuring out what new high bars to set for itself in the climate and energy spaces. Massachusetts continued to wrestle with coming up with a worthy successor to its solar policies that had been so successful at building the local industry over the previous decade.
- 2016 – Another noteworthy factor is the industry’s own big push in 2016, when it looked like the sizeable federal investment tax credit (ITC) was set to expire; that led to a full court press by industry and customers, and a banner year. That helps to explain 2017 (as the market recalibrated a bit), though, and not necessarily 2018; with a supportive policy environment from the top on down, this past year could have been much stronger.
One thing that doesn’t seem to be a reason for a drop in solar jobs is competition from coal. Given our president’s purported focus on jobs, and his (unhealthy) obsession with fossil fuels, you might well imagine that the job losses in solar have been made up in coal mining. The facts, though, say otherwise: The 1,800 new coal mining jobs from January 2018 to last month stacked up to less than a quarter of the 8,000 jobs lost in solar.
(Those increases also brought coal mining up to an estimated 52,700 jobs, which, astute readers will notice, even if Pres. Trump doesn’t, means that there are still 4.6 people employed in solar for every 1 in coal mining.)
The way forward
So, how about 2019 and beyond? There are reasons to think some of the job numbers might right themselves. The strong performers in 2018 look set to continue to perform well:
- Florida (the Sunshine State) has finally discovered solar power, as regulators finally began to let homeowners take advantage of solar leases, a financial tool which has been a powerful driver elsewhere.
- Illinois has been buoyed by the solar provisions in its important 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act.
- Texas is finding that large-scale solar’s really low prices are a good complement to its nation-leading wind fleet.
- Nevada is looking good after fixing a bad decision about net-metering a couple of years ago.
Meanwhile, erstwhile leaders look to be getting back on track. California has a new requirement to put solar on virtually every new home, and a goal to get 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources. Massachusetts finally has its new SMART solar incentive in place, removing the policy uncertainty for at least a little while.
But this is also time for national leadership on clean energy policy. If the White House doesn’t feel compelled to provide it, at least many in Congress do—with Exhibit A being the Green New Deal. UCS was “excited and heartened” to see the GND resolution introduced last week, with its “bold, ambitious vision for how to address climate change in a principled, equitable and science-based manner.”
From where I sit, it seems pretty clear that any bold vision for our climate future has got to include a large role for solar power, with all its potential for cutting carbon, improving public health, enhancing resilience, empowering communities, and, yes, creating jobs.
Getting us squarely on the path toward climate sanity will involve some tough choices. Solar isn’t one of them.
Meanwhile, solar panel installer positions represent the fastest source of job growth in 8 states, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers examined by Yahoo Finance. There are a lot of reasons to think that the number of states should be a whole lot higher.
About the author
John Rogers is a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.