American solar manufacturers are deciding whether to keep workers on the line during the coronavirus crisis or let facilities go dark for an unknown period of time. Many are choosing to stay in operation despite the risks.

The solar industry — like many others — has framed its workers as “essential” in the face of state-, city- and countywide shutdown orders that allow only necessary labor to continue outside the home. But behind that united front, U.S. solar manufacturers, which collectively can produce 7.5 gigawatts of modules per year, are making varied decisions about whether to continue production and what’s required to protect the health of their workers, most of whom are not unionized.

While Tesla shut down its solar facility in New York (and may soon begin producing much-needed ventilators instead), First Solar modules are still rolling off the line in Ohio. All U.S. counties with solar manufacturing have reported coronavirus cases, but employees at factories operated by JinkoSolar, Heliene, Hanwha Q Cells, SunPower and Silfab are still reporting for work.

Each company that is still running its factories reports observing social distancing measures on its production lines, and most mentioned cooperation and communication with local officials about planned shutdowns. In some locations — including Ohio, Minnesota, Washington and California — those shutdowns have already been instituted, but solar workers are still on the job. The U.S. now has more reported cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world, with around 86,000 as of Friday afternoon, and nearly 1,300 deaths.  

Greentech Media reached as many companies as possible to ask about their operations.

JinkoSolar, which opened a 400-megawatt module facility in Jacksonville, Florida a year ago, continues to operate at full capacity. Jacksonville, Florida's most populous city, has issued a citywide work-from-home order, though the state government has not yet followed suit. Jinko's U.S. office workers are working from home, and Jinko’s director of business development, Jeff Juger, said the company began implementing precautions at its Florida factory well before cases were reported in the area. That includes requiring employees or visitors coming from countries or states with at least one coronavirus case to stay home for two weeks and monitor their temperature every day before visiting the factory. Only “essential” visits, for activities such as audits or repairs, are allowed at the plant. The company also requires temperature monitoring before entering. As of Thursday, Florida had reported 2,352 COVID-19 cases, with 85 cases in Duval County where the plant is located.   

Lunchrooms are closed at the Heliene plant in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, located in a northern county where five of the state’s 398 cases had been reported as of Friday. That module factory has 19 employees on the line at one time, with staff standing 2 meters apart and wearing gloves and other protective gear. Though Minnesota issued a statewide shutdown on Wednesday, Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk said operations will continue because he believes the company’s employees can be deemed a “critical infrastructure workforce.”

In Bellingham, Washington, a city close to the Canadian border in one of the states hit hardest by coronavirus cases (3,207 reported as of Wednesday), Silfab is continuing to pump out modules despite Governor Jay Inslee’s “stay at home, stay healthy” order released March 23. The company has moved to electronic attendance for roll call and says it has increased sanitizers, equipment cleaning and hand-washing at the plant. Silfab is also checking employees' temperatures before the workers enter the building.

Aside from Tesla, just one U.S. manufacturer, Fremont, California-based Solaria, told Greentech Media that it had shut down. The company produces 40 megawatts' worth of panels a year in its California factory, with 10 times that capacity in South Korea. Though production at the latter factory continues — South Korea has been viewed as a role model on containing COVID-19 through early testing of its population — Solaria ceased production in California on March 16, after six Northern California counties implemented shutdowns. The entire state enacted a similar policy days later.

Though Solaria CEO Suvi Sharma said he views solar workers as essential, the company decided the most prudent choice was to pause manufacturing in the U.S. for the time being. Solaria’s plant, which typically has about 50 workers in the building at one time, had extended hours to stagger shifts prior to the shutdown. But Sharma said the enclosed nature of the work ultimately made suspending production the safest decision.

Among the companies that did not respond to requests for comment on the status of their U.S. factories are Texas-based Mission Solar; LG Electronics, which has a plant in Alabama; California’s SunSpark; and Florida’s SolarTech Universal.

Are solar workers "essential"? 

With many industries pushing to be deemed “essential,” the word has turned into something of a political football as local and state governments negotiate the tricky calculus of containing cases while also keeping the economy partially afloat.

In general, authorities have categorized construction, manufacturing and energy as essential. That’s allowed work at construction and manufacturing sites to continue, even as some workers have complained of unsafe and unsanitary conditions and cite difficulties when it comes to social distancing.

The Trump administration's resistance to some measures recommended by public health experts has led to a patchwork of local orders, ranging from the wide-reaching shutdown in California requiring all residents to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, and looser restrictions, such as in Georgia, where gatherings of 10 or more are banned but no statewide shutdown measure has been imposed. More than half of all U.S. states have no restrictions in place, according to tracking by The New York Times.

Overall, states with more cases have been more inclined to adopt aggressive measures. Public health experts say proactively imposed and stringent measures are the best way to contain the spread of the disease. Even armed with that knowledge, there are few easy decisions in the age of this pandemic. And all have consequences.

The Solar Energy Industries Association — where representatives from Jinko, Canadian Solar and Hanwha Q Cells sit on the board — has proclaimed worker safety its top priority in coping with COVID-19. Without government support, the group has said, some sectors of the industry could lose up to 50 percent of jobs.

Determining whether work should continue is something of a gray area, said Solaria’s Sharma. And certain solar activities, such as outside installations that can be carried out at a distance, may be safer than others.

“It’s not black or white; it depends on the amount of time involved,” said Sharma. “For us, if we don’t produce in Fremont, it’s painful, but it’s not the end of business for us. It’s not life or death.”

Solar workers: Is your company adhering to social distancing and other public health standards? Email [email protected] to tell us about your experience.

Wood Mackenzie recently released a research insight covering coronavirus impacts on on utility-scale solar and solar supply chains in the United States.