In 2018, the U.S. solar industry lost jobs for the second year in a row, according to numbers reported by the nonprofit Solar Foundation on Tuesday.
Employment in solar was down 3.2 percent over 2017, according to the organization’s 2018 Solar Jobs Census, an industry survey now in its ninth year. Since the “boom year” of 2016, the industry has shed 17,000 jobs.
Though the numbers point to difficulties over the past couple of years, the Solar Foundation said the downturn is tempered by the industry’s meteoric growth on an overarching level. Since 2010, solar jobs have increased by 159 percent. Between 2013 and 2018, jobs increased by 70 percent. In 2018, the number of total jobs reached 242,000.
Falling costs and favorable policies helped spur that growth. But according to the Solar Foundation, uncertainty tied to the Section 201 tariffs, announced at the beginning of last year, and policy changes in well-established markets, constrained increases last year.
According to the latest data from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association, residential installations in 2018 were forecasted to have increased slightly year-over-year, while non-residential or commercial installations are expected to have shown a slight decrease (analysts are still working on finalizing the Q4 2018 numbers). Utility-scale projects, meanwhile, are trending down. In the third quarter of 2018, utility-scale solar installations hit at a three-year low.
The residential solar sector is more labor-intensive than utility-scale, with the residential segment accounting for 56 percent of total installation and project development jobs, according to the Solar Foundation. However, moderate or nonexistent growth in the residential sector modulated the overall employment numbers this year.
That means that in the last couple of years, the continuous decline in solar prices hasn’t shown the inverse relationship to job numbers that existed in the past. Though solar prices have continued to decline in all sectors, in the last two years, job growth has stalled.
Utility-scale solar prices now hover around $1 per watt. But as the market heads into later phases of maturity, industry players say the challenging labor trends indicate the need for improvement.
“This report highlights that in order to continue adding jobs, the solar industry is going to have to work harder to reduce the cost of going solar,” said COO of Aurora Solar Samuel Adeyemo, in a statement on the report.
In the past, Adeyemo said, price reductions came from falling module prices and “democratizing financing.” He added that in the future, the industry needs to work on shrinking soft costs to drive further price cuts.
The census showed the most drastic declines in the country’s largest solar markets. California lost the most solar employment, at 9,576 jobs, which the census attributed in part to uncertainty over the state's rate structures. Massachusetts and North Carolina (ranked seventh and second in installed solar capacity, respectively) filled out the top three spots in terms of jobs lost. Arizona and Hawaii were also among the states that saw job declines.
Conversely, many states with more nascent or growing solar markets added jobs in 2018. Though job cuts in established markets took a bite out of the total, 29 states — including Illinois, Texas and Ohio — actually saw solar jobs rise last year. After adding 1,769 jobs, Florida now ranks second to California in solar jobs, replacing Massachusetts.
Employment among less-represented demographic groups showed little change from 2017, according to the census. The solar industry has a lower portion of employees who identify as female or who are older than 55 or who are black than the overall U.S. workforce.
Latino or Hispanic workers now represent 16.9 percent of the solar workforce, barely above the 16.8 percent level seen in 2017. Black workers account for 7.6 percent, up from 7.4 percent in 2017. Asian workers account for 8.5 percent of the solar workforce, compared to 8.4 percent in 2017. Women make up just over a quarter of employees at 26.3 percent, a slight drop from the 26.9 percent reported in 2017.
The numbers echo other disparities in the solar industry pointed out in a recent study that detailed the unequal deployment of rooftop solar among racial and ethnic groups.
Beyond 2018, WoodMac analysts forecast upticks in both residential solar capacity, at 2,510 megawatts, and utility-scale solar capacity, at 7,199 megawatts, by the end of 2019. With the expected increase in installations, the Solar Foundation said, “new job opportunities will likely follow.”
Census respondents suggested that in 2019 jobs could increase 7 percent over 2018, totaling 259,400 — a number rivaling the 2016 peak. That prediction may not come to pass, though. In 2017, the industry expected jobs to grow by 5.2 percent in 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,” said Solar Foundation President and CEO Andrea Luecke, in a statement on the numbers. “However, it will take exceptional leadership at the federal, state and local levels to spur this growth.”