Pandemic leads to solar industry job losses, as installations set a record

Pandemic leads to solar industry job losses, as installations set a record

Energize Weekly, May 12, 2021

Solar industry employment dropped 6.7 percent last year to 231,474, despite a record-setting year for installations, according to the 2020 National Solar Jobs Census.

The cross trends are explained by increases in labor productivity which ranged from 2 percent to 32 percent across market segments, the report, by the industry trade group, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the Solar Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group, said.

The job losses were across all labor categories, and in most, states were the result of the COVID pandemic.

“Lockdowns that began in March 2020 in major solar markets from California to the Mid-Atlantic put a halt to most residential and commercial installations – the largest source of solar jobs – leading to tens of thousands of layoffs and furloughs,” the report said.

Many local governments ceased or had difficulty processing permit approvals, and while some moved to online applications, a backlog for new projects grew.

Utility-scale solar projects under construction were generally allowed to continue, in part due to state and federal health guidance that deemed the work essential. The utility-scale sector did not see the sharp employment drop experienced in the residential and commercial sectors. 

In fact, many larger contractors suffered from a labor shortage, and solar competed with other construction sectors, such as the booming housing market.

“The solar industry continues to support hundreds of thousands of jobs across all 50 states, and even during a pandemic, our companies largely were able to keep workers on the job,” Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA president and CEO, said in a statement.

Utility-scale solar accounted for 73 percent of the record 19.2 gigawatts (GW) of capacity installed in 2020. 

But because utility-scale projects use fewer installation workers per kilowatt installed, the boom in the sector did not translate to an equal boom in jobs. Utility-scale labor productivity was up 32 percent in 2020, the report said.

Residential solar installations plummeted in the first half of 2020, but rebounded in the second half of the year to close with an 11 percent increase over 2019, with a record 3.1 GW installed, according to a Wood Mackenzie and SEIA market report.

Residential solar jobs did not rebound as quickly as the sector with a 19 percent increase in labor productivity that accounted for the biggest solar job losses for the year.

Non-residential solar, including solar gardens and commercial and office installations, struggled through 2020 with projects down 4 percent compared with 2019 to 2,074 megawatts (MW) and just a 2 percent increase in labor productivity.

“Despite increases in demand over the second half of the year, the segment has yet to ramp up to pre-pandemic levels,” the census said. “Total residential and commercial solar installation jobs declined by roughly 5,500 in 2020 or 4.3 percent.”

About 55 percent of all solar industry jobs were in the residential installation sector followed by 19 percent in utility-scale installations and 18 percent in commercial. Jobs in community solar made up the rest.

The top three states for solar jobs remain California, Florida and New York, as Texas moved into fourth place. California had nearly 67,000 solar jobs in 2020, followed by Florida with about 11,200 jobs, New York with 10,200 and Texas with 10,000.

The Wood Mackenzie-SEIA market analysis projects a quadrupling of solar capacity to 400 GW from the current 100 GW. The Biden administration has set a target of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.

“While the solar industry is on a trajectory to reach 400,000 solar jobs by 2030, employment will need to exceed 900,000 workers by 2035 to reach the 100 percent clean electricity goal set by President Biden,” the census said.

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