After experiencing back-to-back years of declining employment, the U.S. solar industry rebounded in 2019, adding more than 5,600 jobs.
An Industry on the Upswing
The number of people employed in the solar industry grew in 2019 to a total of 249,983 solar workers – categorized as those who spend 50% or more of their time on solar-related work. This according to the latest National Solar Jobs Census. The growth in employment in 2019 represents an increase of 2.3% from the previous year, and an increase of 167% from the first National Solar Jobs Census taken in 2010.
Photo Source: The Solar Foundation
The National Solar Jobs Census is annually produced by The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan solar industry educational and research organization based in Washington, DC. In its tenth year of production, the National Solar Jobs Census is a rigorous survey completed by solar industry establishments that collects a host of data primarily centered around industry employment trends. In 2019, 2,766 surveys were administered and 1,859 were completed, representing a margin of error of 2.27% for the national jobs data.
The Solar Foundation attributed the growth in solar jobs from 2018 to 2019 to “a significant increase in the capacity of solar installations over the previous year.” More specifically, the organization cited three main factors for spurring the year-over-year job growth:
The continued decline of solar costs: As we’ve noted before at Solar Tribune, the solar industry is in an unprecedented era of rapid innovation that has led to steep cost reductions throughout the supply chain, making solar energy systems more affordable than ever for end users. From 2000 to 2018 alone, the global price per watt for solar panels fell from $3.50 to $0.30.
The phaseout of the federal investment tax credit: 2019 was the last year that the 30% federal ITC was available, which caused solar energy users – especially on the residential side – to rush to install solar energy systems and take advantage of the lucrative tax credit.
Easing of concerns over Section 201 tariff impacts: The tariffs on solar cells implemented in February by the Trump Administration stymied industry job growth in 2018. However, global price decreases in solar energy system components largely mitigated the impact of the tariffs in 2019.
The overwhelming majority of solar industry jobs are concentrated in “Installation and Product Development” jobs. Over 162,000 people – or roughly two-thirds – are employed in this sub-group out of the 249,983 total jobs in the industry.
Photo Source: Chart created by Solar Tribune; data from The Solar Foundation
Almost all of the sub-categories of employment type grew from 2018 to 2019, underscoring the broad health of the industry. The only sub-category within the industry to experience job reductions was the “All Other” group that includes consulting, engineering, finance, legal, and related support services.
The full report (downloadable here) is chock full of insightful tidbits about the state of the solar industry. Below is a sampling of additional key findings:
31 states experienced job growth in the solar industry in 2019, up from 29 states in 2018.
Florida added the most solar jobs (+1,843) of any state in the nation.
Nevada leads the nation in solar jobs per capita (1:206)
Solar installation companies reported that 10% of their total employees focus on battery storage.
From 2014-2019, employment in the solar industry grew by 7.5% annually, almost 5 times greater than the 1.6% annual growth rate for all U.S. employment over the same time period.
The solar industry was responsible for one in every 150 new jobs created in the U.S. from 2014-2019.
The solar industry employs almost twice as many workers as the coal industry.
The South Leads the Way
The latest Solar Jobs Census revealed that the South is entrenching itself as the nation’s dominate region for solar job growth. Sure, California and legacy solar markets in the Northeast employ 100,000+ people (almost 75,000 in California alone), but changing state solar policies and the disruptive wildfires in California added job-halting uncertainty in many of these markets in 2019.
The real story is in the South where emerging markets and new pro-solar public policies have created abundant job opportunities for solar workers. For the purposes of the Solar Jobs Census, The Solar Foundation divides the country up into Census Divisions based on geography (see below).
Photo Source: The Solar Foundation
States in the South (purple region) were the clear national leaders in solar job growth. Florida, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and Louisiana all were ranked among the top 10 state leaders for number of solar jobs created from 2018-2019. By comparison, just two states from Southern markets (Florida and Texas) accomplished the same feat in the year prior.
Photo Source: The Solar Foundation
The South’s emergence as a hotbed for solar industry growth is somewhat counterintuitive given the region’s rock bottom average price of electricity. According to the EIA, the average price nationally per kWh for residential electricity is around 13 cents. The majority of Southern states boast avg. rates lower than this national benchmark, while California and most New England states are paying 20+ cents/kWh. Low electricity rates typically disincentivize residential solar adoption since the financial incentive for disconnecting from the power grid is less apparent. The abundance of sunny days in the South, however, helps to counter this reality. As noted in the report:
“Low electricity prices tend to make solar less cost competitive, increasing the time it takes to recover the costs of a solar installation. However, the Southeast has a higher solar resource rank than many other areas of the country, leading to greater energy yield. As in much of the rest of the country, falling solar costs have pushed solar into positive economic territory in the Southeast.”
The South’s global dominance as a manufacturing hub has also helped the region spur solar industry job growth by attracting ever elusive solar manufacturing operations to American shores.
In Georgia, South Korean solar manufacturer, Hanwha Q Cells, opened the largest solar factory in the Western Hemisphere last fall. The facility employs over 600 people.
In Florida, Jinko Solar began production at its Jacksonville facility in 2019. The ramp up of production workers continues, but the facility is expected to employ 200 people once fully operational.
In Alabama, LG Electronics added a facility for manufacturing residential solar panels at their existing Huntsville campus in 2019, creating 160 new jobs in the process.
Expect to see more Southern dominance in the U.S. solar market in coming years as elected officials in emerging markets, like South Carolina, are moved to enact pro-solar state policies. The South Carolina legislature passed and Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) signed into law the Energy Freedom Act (EFA) last year. The EFA eliminates the 2% cap on net metering, which will surely fuel more residential solar adoption in the state, while the bill also includes a number of provisions that will free up backlogged utility-scale projects that major utilities, like Duke Energy, are itching to bring to market.
For a state with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature and a Republican governor to support such a pro-solar piece of legislation in the Deep South is no small success, and it may be indicative of a broader culture change in the works as the favorable economics – and job creation potential – of the solar industry become harder to ignore. As Gov. McMaster put it:
“South Carolina’s economy is booming and the growth of our renewable energy industry is a significant part of our success. As our state grows, we must continue to look for new ways to generate clean, affordable energy and make it accessible to our citizens. We look forward to doing all that we can to enhance the economic impact of the solar industry in our state.”
Promising 2020 on Deck
What a difference a year makes. The choppy waters that the solar industry experienced in 2017 and 2018 have given way to much calmer seas.
“The coming year is expected to be a historic time for solar energy development. In 2020, Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables expects 19 GW of new solar capacity to come online, a 46% increase over the pace of new deployment in 2019 and representing the largest year ever for U.S. solar. While over 70% of new capacity will come from utility-scale solar in 2020, residential solar development is also expected to see modest growth.” – National Solar Jobs Census, 2020
National Solar Jobs Census respondents themselves were quite bullish on the industry’s prospects for growth in 2020, with respondents projecting employment growth of 7.8% at their respective firms.
There’s plenty of reason to support this glowing outlook for the solar industry in 2020. Consider the following:
Solar storage will become more mainstream in 2020, as battery costs continue to plummet. In California – the nation’s largest solar market – the safety-related power shutoffs by utilities during last year’s wildfire outbreaks will fuel more residential and commercial interest in solar storage. By 2023, industry analysts predict that 20% of all commercial solar capacity will include solar storage.
2020 will be the first full year that California’s Title 24 mandate for residential solar on all new residences will be in effect.
Penetration into low-and-moderate income (LMI) communities via community solar projects will continue to expand in 2020. Since 2011, 15 states and Washington, DC have implemented programs to encourage community solar investments in LMI communities.
2020 will be the first full year that Washington, DC’s mandate to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2032 will be in place. The law includes a solar carveout requiring 10% of DC’s electricity to be produced from local solar generation by 2041. Solar permits more than doubled in DC last year – that trend will continue in 2020.
Newly adopted pro-solar policies implemented in states like Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, South Carolina, and elsewhere will also continue to draw new solar users to the market in 2020. Consumer pressure and improving solar economics will likewise help fuel rapid growth in the corporate procurement of solar power. Meanwhile, the EIA projects that overall utility-scale solar capacity installed in 2020 will increase by almost 100% from 2019.
Simply put, 2020 is shaping up to be a history-making year for the solar industry. Let’s enjoy the ride!
Cover Photo Source: Publicwire.com