Solar jobs: 80,000 trained in the last three decades, over the next three years… double that


Solar has gone on an impressive journey, rising from a fledgling technology to a relevant part of the overall power generation mix, and the dominant technology in newly deployed projects. In 2012, about 2.7 GW of solar was reported to be active by the Energy Information Administration, and now, as of the end of 2021, 92.5 GW are installed. That’s an increase of over 3000% in nine short years. 

Now, solar is set to go through another stage of rapid growth, spurred by high targets of clean energy procurement set at the federal, state, utility, and corporate levels.  The Biden Administration has set its target for 100% carbon pollution-free energy by 2035, suggesting this ramp-up must continue to accelerate if we are to hit the target.

This equates to a lot of panels on the ground and on our roofs, but it also means that a new generation of solar workers will need to be trained. That is the aim of Solar Energy International (SEI), to train and prepare a skilled solar workforce to carry us through the energy transition. Elizabeth Sanderson, executive director of SEI joined pv magazine to discuss this growth.

“We as an organization are trying to help fill that pipeline. In 30 years, we trained 80,000 people, in the next three years, we are going to be training double that,” said Sanderson.

Sanderson said that anywhere from 900,000 to 1.5 million US solar jobs will be needed by 2035 to stay on target. That’s multiples above the roughly 230,000 solar workers today. The range accounts for the fact that the US may find itself supporting a new generation of domestic manufacturing jobs.

The Commerce investigation may be putting as many as 100,000 US solar jobs at stake.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

That kind of growth is exciting, but there are some near-term hurdles the industry must vault for the growth to stay on track. The highest hurdle, Commerce’s investigation into the alleged anti-circumvention violations of Chinese solar panel exporters, is causing pains this year. The uncertainty caused by the potential 50 to 250% tariffs is causing many developers to have to cancel projects, and that in turn leads to job losses.

As a result, the Solar Energy Industries Association cut its deployment forecast in half for the year and said as many as 100,000 jobs could be lost. Sanderson joins the industry in calling for Commerce to swiftly end the investigation in whatever legal capacity they have to do so. 

Commerce’s decision is due in August, though it will likely take longer for the tariffs to be implemented, if they are implemented at all. Until then, Sanderson said delays and cancellations represent an opportunity to reinvest in the workforce, making sure that employees are well trained for when the installations start rolling out again.

SEI engages in online and hands-on workforce training, building training labs within communities, and engaging in community and stakeholder education and advocacy for solar.
Image: Solar Energy International

SEI is actively expanding both its online and hands-on solar training programs, which include training for energy storage and other ancillary components to a solar array. It is also preparing for a new generation of domestic manufacturing jobs, though Sanderson said the current policy landscape needs improvement to better support these jobs.

Domestic manufacturing

Sanderson said recent policy actions at the federal level are poorly aligned with federal deployment goals. The Commerce investigation puts a lot of existing jobs in jeopardy, and it doesn’t create a long-term solution to support domestic manufacturing.

“You can’t cut off the supply chain now and expect to have a healthy industry,” said Sanderson.

She said policy like the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America bill, which is tied up political purgatory in the Build Back Better Act, and a long-term extension of the solar investment tax credit would be more legitimate, long-term industrial policy that could make a real impact on this new generation of solar careers.

Sanderson said, “There can’t just be a stick, there needs to be a big carrot, and it has to be focused and not waiting for big agreements [like Build Back Better.]”

Impactful training

Solar Energy International has a global reach, training in North America, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. For the US, it has translated all its learning materials into both English and Spanish and has an evolving set of tools to serve a diversifying workforce.

SEI provides training centers for Reactivate, an organization that develops and invests in solar energy projects primarily serving low-to-moderate income communities and areas disproportionately affected by the clean energy transition.
Image: Reactivate

Image: SEI

The organization trains both using online resources and has an increasing hands-on training impact. SEI has developed expertise in hands-on learning for over 30 years, and it continues to refine its practice, partnering with community colleges, universities, social organizations, private companies, and more, to establish learning laboratories for the long-term.

SEI also works with Invenergy and Lafayette Square on a program called Reactivate, a community solar platform supporting development in marginalized communities. It is working with the organization to build labs directly in these communities, creating customized hands-on educational centers within the community.

SEI’s work expands beyond just training, as well. It works closely with private companies to launch markets and support a healthy job market in the communities it trains. The company also gets involved in community and stakeholder engagement, educating decision makers on the many benefits of solar.

Globally, solar is set to take center stage over the next couple of decades. As many as 12 million solar workers may be in employment worldwide in 2050, and as we build our decarbonized future, Solar Energy International will be ramping up its capabilities to support an educated, diverse, quality workforce for years to come.

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