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Tina Casey headshot

Up, Down Or Sideways: Where Will U.S. Solar Jobs Head Next?

By Tina Casey

The immediate impact of President Trump's new solar tariff is unclear, but evidence is mounting that solar jobs will continue to increase. That's not necessarily good news for solar job seekers in the manufacturing sector, though. The whole point of the tariff was to increase U.S. manufacturing, but  solar companies have been slow to announce plans to open new factories in the U.S.

More to the point, in today's automated, next-generation manufacturing world, new factories don't necessarily lead to a significant jump in jobs. Even a large factory may account for only a few hundred permanent, full time positions.

So, where will all the new solar jobs come from?

Trump administration still foresees more solar jobs

One clue comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which paints a sunny outlook for the U.S. solar industry -- at least, for solar installers.

Under the category of Solar Photovoltaic Installer, the agency's Occupational Outlook Handbook continues to forecast a ten-year growth rate that significantly outpaces the national average:

Employment of solar photovoltaic (PV) installers is projected to grow 105 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. The continued expansion and adoption of solar panel installations will result in excellent job opportunities for qualified individuals, particularly those who complete photovoltaic training courses at a community college or technical school.

The agency also lists two factors that make the solar sector attractive to job seekers in construction and similar fields, namely, a decent median salary and an educational requirement of high school diploma or equivalent.

The Solar Foundation also notes that the solar industry is labor-intensive compared to other energy sectors. That makes sense when you consider that solar electricity generation can be scaled down to the size of a rooftop:

Solar makes up just under 2% of overall U.S. energy generation, yet it employs twice as many workers as the coal industry, almost five times as many as nuclear power, and nearly as many workers as the natural gas industry. (These numbers are based on 2016 data, the most recent available for comparison between industries.).

A reality check for solar installers...or not

On the other hand, the BLS outlook may not have assessed the full impact of the new solar tariff. The page lists an update of April 13, barely two months after the tariff took effect.

There were already signals of an industry impact last year. The new tariff was still just in the proposal phase in 2017, but the environment of uncertainty contributed to a drop in solar jobs. According to The Solar Foundation, there were 3.8% fewer jobs in 2017 than in 2016 -- the first such downward movement since the organization began tracking solar jobs in 2010.

The Solar Energy Industries Association also estimated the loss of 88,000 jobs once the tariff took effect. That estimate was later revised down to 23,000 after the particulars of the tariff were revealed in January. That's not quite as bad, but still an unwholesome sign after the six-year run of solid growth from 2010 to 2016.

SEIA also toted up the damages in an April 16 letter to the Trump Administration. According to SEIA,18 solar companies have reported they are planning to scale back their workforce and/or cancel projects that would have added hundreds of jobs.

The Solar Foundation took a different look at the situation. Based on its 2017 solar jobs census, the organization foresaw the potential for a slight increase in 2018, bringing solar jobs back to the record-setting level of 2016.

In April, Utility Dive also solicited insights from a number of utilities that supported the more optimistic outlook.

Tariff or not, here comes solar

The middle ground between the two opinions is that the new tariff almost certainly stalled job growth in the US solar industry for the time being, but did not stop it.

As for the intended effect of the new tariff -- the growth of solar panel manufacturing jobs -- according to SEIA the impact has been "underwhelming."

Only a handful of new projects have been announced so far. The most ambitious one is a facility planned in Florida by JinkoSolar, which would create 200 manufacturing jobs.

The tepid response by manufacturers could have a lot to do with the way the new tariff is constructed. It imposed a 30% tax on imported solar panels in the first year, but that steps down to only 15% by year four. In five years, it will evaporate entirely, providing manufacturers with little incentive to build in the US.

In other words, the results won't be much different from 2012, the last time that the US tried to boost domestic manufacturing with a solar tariff.

In the meantime, solar companies that stockpiled solar panels ahead of the tariff can still offer pre-tariff prices to their customers.

Industry analysts also point out that even during the peak first year of the tariff, a completed solar installation is still far less expensive than it would have been just a few years ago. That's due to an ongoing drop in "soft" costs including labor, permitting, grid hookups and other elements in a solar installation other than the solar panels.

Further drops in the cost of hardware can also make solar a more attractive energy buy than fossil fuels or nuclear. In particular, the Rocky Mountain Institute foresees that emerging pre-fab solar modules will lead to significant cost reductions.

The US business community has been a powerful driver of renewable energy in the US, and that trend shows no sign of stopping.

Most importantly, state and local policy makers can still have a significant impact on solar growth in the US. The Solar Foundation's 2017 census indicates that even as solar jobs dropped on average, there was actually an increase in 29 states.

To top it off, some federal policies still contribute to solar growth, despite the President's well known pledge to bring back coal jobs.

One example is the SolSmart Program, an Obama-era initiative that encourages cities and counties to streamline their processes for solar installations and engage the public in going solar, all with the aim of encouraging job growth.

Image (cropped): via The Solar Foundation.


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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