The U.S. solar industry is preparing to argue that its workers are essential to the economy as it copes with a growing pile of government-mandated shutdowns to combat the spread of COVID-19.
State-, county- and city-wide shutdowns, which are already in place in California, the nation's largest solar market, as well as New York and Dallas County, Texas, largely called for employees of “nonessential” sectors to stay home; the orders now cover about 20 percent of U.S. residents, according to the New York Times.
Social distancing has the potential to slow the solar industry to a crawl. While certain aspects of solar development can take place online, project construction cannot. The mandates may also curb door-to-door sales of residential solar, employed widely by industry players such as Vivint Solar.
The Solar Energy Industries Association said on Friday that it’s working to stem a slowdown by proving the solar industry's essentiality, even as more states and cities consider shutting down their economies.
“Our focus is on our workers and secondly on our businesses so our workers can stay employed,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and CEO, on a Friday webinar the organization hosted on the pandemic’s impacts.
The industry group said it’s still working to assess emergency orders from states such as California, which are compounding at a quickening pace. On Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom called for all of the state’s nearly 40 million residents to stay home unless performing essential work. The California Solar and Storage Association concluded in a Saturday memo that the state's guidelines allow those industries to continue work under the "essential services exemption" as long as the industry adheres to "the intent and spirit of the Shelter in Place orders."
Sean Gallagher, SEIA’s vice president of state affairs, said on Friday the federal trade group would be deciding over the next several days how to advocate for solar workers to be included to the extent possible in that essential category. Members on the call also showed interest in that determination.
“Can SEIA provide language or best practices for us to use to advocate with our local utilities so that construction work can continue to the extent feasible?” Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director at Renewable Energy Vermont, asked on the call.
The realities of categorizing solar workers as essential while practicing social distancing would likely vary based on sector. While utility-scale installers could more easily fan out over a large area, residential installers must interact directly with homeowners and cluster closer together on a roof.
The Department of Homeland Security has identified 16 “critical infrastructure sectors” that must continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic. While energy is included among those sectors, essential work appears to generally apply to the maintenance and operation of critical infrastructure.
The solar industry, which worries that project timelines may get pushed if work is stopped for months, wants to continue building. In a survey SEIA conducted, solar companies named construction delays as their top concern among COVID-19 impacts.
The industry’s efforts may be met with skepticism — in most cases, “essential” activities have included health care, emergency response and transit workers. Still, it’s a strategy many businesses and whole sectors of the economy are now pursuing, according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal.
As the Trump administration considers possible bailouts for oil and gas as well as airlines, the solar industry hopes it can also successfully lobby for sector-specific relief.
An industry prepares to work from home
For now, the industry is carrying on with what tasks it can.
While Gallagher noted that many state legislatures have paused work, regulatory agencies are pushing on with what can be accomplished virtually. Some permitting agencies are making the switch to online work, a change long favored by the industry, or are accepting permit fees over the phone.
“We have some examples of some departments having a dropbox where you can basically drop [a permit] in a box or shove it under a door,” said Justin Baca, SEIA’s vice president for market research, on Friday. “We also have examples of some jurisdictions that are accepting inspections virtually.”
SEIA is also advocating for one-page permit applications to simplify approval. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is working on an automated online permit processing system and plans to unveil a preliminary prototype in mid-April.
In the future, federal government assistance could come in the form of small business loans or grants. The industry is also pushing for an extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit and increased flexibility around meeting its requirements. But determining what, if any, relief Congress will offer is as much in flux as the evolving pandemic, and SEIA declined to discuss any deals it would be willing to make.
This story has been updated with information from the California Solar and Storage Association.