US solar hits near record employment as Southeast shines

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Florida and Georgia added the most solar jobs in 2019, a year in which the solar industry employed a quarter of a million U.S. workers, according to the Solar Foundation’s 2019 solar jobs census.

“That’s 250,000 jobs nationwide since 2010, and [job creation] is not stopping despite the tariffs and the phasing out of the [solar] investment tax credit,” Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation said. Combined solar and wind will represent 78% of new energy generation this year, she added.

For its part, the solar industry, which represents 2.6% of overall U.S. electricity generation, already employs twice as many workers as the U.S. coal industry.

Solar jobs increased in 31 states in 2019, but the largest gains were in the Southeast, notably Florida and Georgia.

In 2019, Florida’s solar workforce grew 18% to 12,202 solar workers, and Georgia’s increased 30% to 4,798 workers. South Carolina and Virginia, which has a 1.3 GW pipeline of utility-scale solar projects coming on line this year, also registered healthy jobs gains, the solar jobs census said.

The fact that solar jobs are growing fastest in the Southeast, where many states have average utility prices below the national average electricity price of 10.53 cents per kilowatt-hour is promising. “It demonstrates that solar is cost competitive,” Luecke said.

“The price of solar has come down so much”

“It is [happening] because the price of solar has come down so much,” Ed Gilliland, a senior director at the Solar Foundation and lead author of the solar job census added. Also, utility scale solar, which is prevalent in the Southeast, is not as policy dependent as residential solar, he said.

At 7,000 solar jobs, Nevada has the largest number of solar workers per capita nationwide, and California, with 74,255 solar workers and 40% of the cumulative solar capacity, remains the U.S.’s largest solar market, the census said

Despite California’s Title 24 mandate, which requires all residential homes built after 2020 to have solar PV, solar jobs growth in California was curtailed in 2019 because solar installation companies cut their door-to-door sales staff and instead partnered with building companies to find business leads, the Solar Foundation found.

In the wake of the 2018 and 2019 California wildfire seasons and the state’s recent public safety power shutoffs, interest in solar-plus-storage solutions spiked nationwide.

Industry officials expect the U.S. market value for storage to jump to $5.4 billion in 2024, from $645 million last year, the census said. By 2023, industry officials think that 20% of all commercial solar capacity will have storage attached, it noted.

Currently, about 16,000 (10%) of installation jobs nationwide are focused on energy storage. By comparison, during the 12-month period ending in November 2019, about 162,000 (65%) of solar jobs were in installation.

Of these installation jobs, the residential, non-residential/community, and utility scale solar market segments represented 56.1%, 24.5% and 19.4% of jobs, respectively.

Falling prices, environmental concerns and a rush to install solar panels before the investment tax credit (ITC) drops to 22% in 2021 are expected to drive residential solar jobs growth this year. On the utility-scale side, there was a rush to get utility-scale projects started in 2019, so that the projects could capture the full 30% ITC, the report said. However, many utility-scale project starts might not be completed until this year or later, potentially driving job growth in future years.

According to the job census, the hiring difficulties that solar companies reported a year ago are still a challenge. Last year, about 26% of all solar companies and 33% of solar installers said that it was difficult to find qualified candidates, the census said.

Even though respondents to the solar job census said that they expect the U.S. solar industry employment to grow 7.8% to 269,000 this year, the report cautioned against optimism. A year earlier, respondents predicted 7% jobs growth for 2019, and jobs growth was 2.3% last year.

The Solar Foundation did not include energy storage jobs in its 2019 solar job census; instead, these jobs will be listed in an Energy Futures Initiative and National Association of State Energy Officials report slated for release next month.