Cloudy Phase, Brighter Future for Solar Industry

After last year's slowdown, solar projects and employment are both on track to rebound in 2019.

The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2018 is the ninth annual report on the size and outlook of the U.S. solar workforce. The report’s findings show that solar jobs have declined in the past two years after seven years of steady growth.

The U.S. solar industry employed 242,343 workers as of 2018, a decrease of 3.2 percent, nearly 8,000 jobs year-over-year. Solar jobs increased in 29 states in 2018, including states with emerging solar markets. The highest employment figures in the solar industry includes Florida (up 1,769 jobs), Illinois (1,308 jobs), Texas (739 jobs) and New York (718 jobs). Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Virginia and Tennessee have also expanded their solar workforce employment. On the other side of the spectrum, California lost the most jobs (9,500), followed by Massachusetts (1,320), North Carolina (903), Arizona (857) and Maryland (808).

Currently, the solar sector employs about twice as many people as the coal industry and ranks third behind oil and natural gas in the broader energy sector, the study finds. Since the first release of the Census report in 2010, solar employment has grown 159 percent, adding nearly 150,000 well-paying jobs across the country. This year’s edition includes, for the first time, figures for Puerto Rico—1,997 solar workers as of 2018.

Sunnier prospects

The 2018 decline mirrors a slowdown in installed solar capacity—many utility-scale projects were delayed in late 2017, with companies waiting for the outcome of the petition for new tariffs on solar panels and cells. Consequently, these delays led to reduced capacity growth and fewer jobs in the first three quarters of 2018.

“Despite two challenging years, the long-term outlook for this industry remains positive as even more Americans turn to low-cost solar energy and storage solutions to power their homes and businesses,” Andrea Luecke, president & executive director at The Solar Foundation, said in a prepared statement. 

The National Solar Jobs Census 2018 found that some 155,000 solar jobs, which represent two-thirds of the total, are in the installation and project development sector. Of these, about 87,000 jobs (56 percent) are focused on the residential market segment. The non-residential segment includes 46,000 jobs (30 percent), of which 12,500 are in community solar. The utility-scale market comprises 22,000 jobs (14 percent).

In 2018, 26 percent of solar developments reported it was “very difficult” to find qualified candidates to fill open positions, a consistent increase from the 18 percent reporting such challenges the previous year. Yet, the future looks brighter: Thanks to a backlog of utility-scale projects and new policy incentives in key states, the outlook for solar jobs is expected to improve this year, forecasts predicting that solar jobs will rise seven percent in 2019 to a total of 259,400 jobs.