The U.S. solar sector has lost 65,000 jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, erasing five years of job gains, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
According to a new SEIA analysis, the American solar industry now employs around 188,000 people, down from 250,000 at the beginning of the year. Many of those jobs could come back in an economic rebound. Still, it's a stark reversal for what had been one of the country’s fastest-growing industries, forecast by SEIA to reach more than 300,000 jobs by June of this year before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
The solar industry is now losing jobs at a faster rate than the broader American economy, SEIA says. Federal relief looks uncertain.
While SEIA doesn’t directly track jobs across its member companies, surveys of members ranging from nationwide solar developers to smaller regional installers back up the figures, said Dan Whitten, SEIA's vice president of public affairs. The survey revealed “tens of thousands of jobs lost, and a lot of jobs that were furloughed [or] people’s hours being cut back,” he said.
Josh Lutton, president of Illinois-based solar installer Certasun, said the state’s March 20 stay-at-home order forced his company into a three-week hiatus, and since then, business has been slow at what is usually the busiest time of the year.
“We didn’t generate revenue for three weeks when we weren’t installing,” Lutton told GTM. Certasun's roughly 50 employees now follow social distancing and workplace hygiene guidelines, but municipalities have halted permits and inspections. Leads for new customers have dropped, and some customers are canceling their plans.
“They’re saying, 'I just lost my job, I’m worried about losing my job, or I lost a lot of money in the stock market and I want to keep my powder dry,'" Lutton said.
Residential and commercial solar sectors hit hardest
SEIA’s analysis aligns with federal data on job losses since the coronavirus pandemic forced large-scale stay-at-home orders and business closures across the country. Last week, BW Research Partnership reported that nearly 600,000 U.S. clean energy workers filed for unemployment benefits in March and April. Of those, around 96,000 were working in renewable energy, primarily wind and solar power, with solar likely representing two-thirds of that figure, Whitten said.
Solar isn’t the hardest hit of the clean energy sectors — that unfortunate distinction goes to the energy efficiency sector, which employs more people, many of them in jobs that require being able to access homes and businesses. But solar is suffering greater job losses than other sectors such as electric vehicle manufacturing or power grid infrastructure.
Most of the job losses in solar are coming in the residential and commercial sectors, which employ far more people per gigawatt of installed capacity than the larger utility-scale solar market, Whitten said. “A couple of companies have shut down." Others have faced large-scale layoffs, one noteworthy example being Sungevity, which laid off off nearly 400 people in late March.*
Most companies have stayed open despite a steep falloff in business activity, Whitten said. Larger nationwide companies such as Sunrun, SunPower and Tesla have been better able to absorb the costs of the slowdown than have smaller companies.
Solar jobs rebound will depend on broader conditions
Wood Mackenzie has trimmed its forecast for U.S. utility-scale solar installations by about 15 percent this year. For residential solar, the decline will be even sharper, and the commercial and industrial market may see installation levels 50 percent lower than previously forecast.
In the first months of the pandemic, “because of the lockdown measures, a lot of construction work — work inside the house — came to a screeching halt,” said Ravi Manghani, global head of solar for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.
Even as restrictions ease, it’s unclear how many homeowners will be comfortable having workers on their property performing electrical work. Larger national installers that have moved from in-person sales techniques to online and virtual platforms “have been able to continue with the sales processes and haven’t seen significant demand destruction as of yet,” Manghani said.
In contrast, smaller installers will have a harder time adjusting to the lockdown "as well as the ongoing economic downturn," Manghani said.
How and when the industry will be able to recover will depend on how well the country is able to contain the pandemic’s spread and resume broader economic activity. If demand returns by the third quarter of 2020, many solar workers may return to their jobs. If the recovery takes longer than that, "some of the workforce loss could be permanent," Manghani said.
Unclear path to relief in Washington, D.C.
The solar industry has been lobbying Congress for industry-specific aid in upcoming COVID-19 relief legislation, including extending the federal Investment Tax Credit and allowing for "direct pay" from the U.S. Treasury to mitigate any reduction in appetite from tax equity investors.
SEIA president Abigail Hopper noted in a Friday conference call that the $3 trillion stimulus package passed by the House last week doesn’t include these provisions, but she added, “We did not expect it to."
"This is just the first step in what we expect will be a very long road for the next relief installment," Hopper said.
In the absence of supportive federal legislation, the solar industry is working with states, counties, cities and utilities to allow virtual permitting and inspections, using photos and videos to allow work to continue without undue delays, Whitten said. SEIA is also seeking changes to existing federal relief programs to allow smaller companies more access to funds.
"The plainest answer to this problem is, our country needs to get well," Whitten said. "The number of people who are very ill or dying from this virus has to go down, and the economy needs to begin to climb back on its feet."
* A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Sungevity has shut down. The company has laid off a significant share of its workforce but maintains operations.