Look at the job market for solar energy over the last decade, and you’ll see a boom time. Every year since 2010, The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to speeding the adoption of this renewable energy, has conducted a “national solar jobs census” to analyze the number of jobs in solar–and the uptake of the technology.
“We’ve seen meteoric growth year over year,” says The Solar Foundation CEO Andrea Luecke, and 2016 was something of a banner year. That was the year solar employed more than double the number of people working in the coal industry, and as 40 coal plants were scheduled to phase out, 14,000 new megawatts of solar power came online.
Two years later, though, and the rate of growth in the solar industry has slowed. While solar employment overall has grown from 93,000 to 242,000 jobs (up 159%) since 2010, in 2018, total jobs declined by 3.2%, or about 8,000 positions, from that 2017 high mark. The previous year also saw reduced numbers from 2016.
On the surface, this might indicate a troubling trend for the industry. But to Ed Gilliland, senior director of The Solar Foundation, this is something of quick a breather, rather than a sign of decline to come. Part of the slowdown stems from the tariffs that the Trump administration set on solar imports at the beginning of 2018. “In the time leading up to the hearing last January, there was a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace, and a lot of utility-scale solar developers who work on large projects with long lead-time were delaying their projects,” Gilliland says. “When we went in to do our census in October, there just wasn’t as much activity going on, particularly in utility-scale solar.” Talk around tariffs also impacted numbers in the 2017 solar job census.
States with traditionally strong solar markets, like California and Massachusetts, saw the most significant job losses by the numbers. But these losses are likely to reverse, Gilliland says, now that China, the world’s largest supplier of solar panels, has slashed prices on its products, essentially undoing the impact of Trump’s tariffs. Now that utility-scale developers are again able to purchase installation equipment affordably–even at a lower price than they were able to before—the number of solar installations and jobs should pick up again.
In fact, The Solar Foundation projects that total solar jobs should rise by 7% to 259,400 by the end of 2019.
But Gilliland and Luecke maintain that the focus on overall solar trends also masks some important gains at the state levels. Twenty-nine states actually experienced growth in jobs last year. In Florida, for instance, state regulators just began allowing residential solar in 2017. And the number of solar jobs in the state grew by 1,769 since then to leap Massachusetts and take second place behind California in terms of solar employment. And following the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico has doubled down on expanding its solar market, and it’s poised to add more jobs and capacity in the future.
Overall, Gilliland says, “there’s reason to be optimistic.” The number of utility-scale solar projects that are either in the announcement, planning, or contractual stage is the highest it’s ever been. And 2019, he adds, is the last year that developers can take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit offered for residential and commercial solar projects. “All you need to do to get the tax credit is have a shovel in the ground, so to speak,” Gilliland says, so it’s very likely that many more smaller-scale project–and the jobs that carry them out–will crop up before the year is through.