Association report finds solar industry hit hard by job losses

HOUSTON (CN) — Despite its status as the fastest-growing sector in the U.S., the solar energy industry has been thrown onto its heels by the coronavirus, with 65,000 workers losing their jobs since late February, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

With federal tax credits for residential solar installations set to phase out after 2021 and more Americans growing concerned about the effects of fossil fuel-burning power plants on the environment, the solar industry expected a record year in which it would expand to 302,000 workers by June 2020, the association said in a report released Monday.

Within months, the pandemic has wiped out five years of job growth for the U.S. solar industry. It now stands at 188,000 workers, a level not seen 2014, the report says.

“Compounding issues, including supply chain delays, tightening of tax equity markets, homeowners’ financial concerns, shelter-in-place orders, and permitting challenges are all placing tremendous pressure on the industry,” according to the association, which is made up of 1,000 companies.

It’s not just solar that is suffering. The pandemic has decimated all manner of clean energy jobs.

Labor Department data show that 594,347 clean energy workers — 17.8% of the industry’s workforce — filed for unemployment benefits in March and April, with Californians (105,443) and Texans (31,192) filing the most claims during that time, the nonpartisan green energy advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs said in a May 13 report.

The rate of attrition is highest in the energy-efficiency sector, which includes the manufacture and installation of energy-efficient appliances, windows, insulation and the upgrade and repair of HVAC systems.

“The energy efficiency sector accounted for nearly 70% of all clean energy job losses in April, with more than 310,000 energy efficiency workers filing for unemployment,” Environmental Entrepreneurs said in its report.

Environmental advocates are calling on Congress to help shore up the industry in the short term with funding in the stimulus packages the government is doling out to keep businesses solvent amid the pandemic.

“Americans in every state — red, blue, purple — are losing clean energy jobs across a wide swath of occupations — electricians, technicians, installers and factory workers. Congress needs to include clean energy in any future economic stimulus package to help stem this massive loss of jobs today,” said Bob Keefe, Environmental Entrepreneurs executive director.

Environmental groups see the economic stagnation caused by the coronavirus as an opportunity to set the economy on a course oriented toward reducing fossil-fuel emissions.

Keefe said Congress can “set the foundation for a stronger, cleaner and more resilient economy tomorrow.”

Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Service Employees International Union are among hundreds of groups that have signed on to a push for a “people’s bailout,” urging lawmakers to allocate funding to expand wind and solar power, rebuild infrastructure, weatherize buildings and construct clean and affordable public transit.

The solar industry expected business to be brisk this year and the next with homeowners taking advantage of fading tax credits.

Business and homeowners can deduct 26% of the cost of their solar systems from their taxes in 2020, and 22% in 2021. In 2022, the residential credit goes away and drops to 10% for commercial installations.

Yet, even with all the job losses, the solar industry’s long-term outlook appears good, as the Labor Department projects solar-panel installer jobs will grow by 63% by 2028.

And higher education is not necessary to make a decent living. Workers who can enter the solar field with only a high school diploma made a median salary of around $45,000 in 2019, the Labor Department said.