Trump’s Tariffs Sent Solar Jobs Tumbling For The Second Year In A Row

But there’s a sunnier outlook in 2019, in part thanks to the Green New Deal.
A worker installs a solar panel system on a rooftop in Los Angeles.
A worker installs a solar panel system on a rooftop in Los Angeles.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In 2016, the solar industry created 1 in every 50 new jobs in the United States. A year later, that number decreased for the first time in seven years as President Donald Trump’s threat to slap import fees on photovoltaic panels loomed.

That decline continued for a second year in a row in 2018, new data show.

The Solar Foundation’s annual job census, released Tuesday morning, found employment fell 3.2 percent in 2018 compared with the previous year, equivalent to 7,928 jobs in an industry that employed 242,343 workers as of November.

The 30 percent tariffs Trump approved on all imported solar panels 13 months ago are the primary cause of the fall, the researchers determined after speaking to more than 3,000 companies via nearly 60,000 phone calls and 49,000 emails. Delayed or insufficient state-level incentives prompted declines in a handful of states that once led the solar boom.

“The last couple of years have been challenging,” Andrea Luecke, the nonprofit Solar Foundation’s executive director, said by phone ahead of the release.

The outlook for 2019 improves significantly, and a nascent push for a so-called Green New Deal could dramatically increase demand for solar workers in the next few years.

The problem, at least on the federal level, was mostly one of perception. Trump came into office in 2017 promising to gut incentives for solar and wind energy in an effort to bolster fossil fuels and cut federal spending. Congress ultimately preserved tax incentives and funding research for renewables.

But later that year, two domestic solar manufacturers filed complaints with the U.S. International Trade Commission, alleging they couldn’t compete with modules built overseas. The companies requested the White House impose fees on imported panels under the 1974 Trade Act that would more than double the cost of solar cells.

A chart from the report shows the 159 percent increase in solar employment since 2010.
A chart from the report shows the 159 percent increase in solar employment since 2010.
The Solar Foundation

Roughly three-quarters of Americans employed by the solar industry work in installment and wholesale, sectors bolstered by the availability of cheap panels manufactured in China and Southeast Asia. Yet even the smaller U.S. manufacturing sector has urged the White House to reject the complaint. In a twist, the companies who filed the complaint were foreign-owned. Georgia-based Suniva was owned by a Chinese company; SolarWorld was the Oregon-based subsidiary of a German panel manufacturer.

In January 2018, Trump finally reached a decision, approving tariffs slightly lower than what the companies requested. By then, utilities planning large-scale solar farms had already halted or delayed costly, long-term projects in anticipation of the Trump administration’s action.

“A lot of the impact of these tariffs took place prior to the announcement in January,” said Ed Gilliland, a senior director at the Solar Foundation. “Leading up to that, there was a lot of uncertainty about what the tariffs would be.”

The tariffs had little effect on costs. In China, regulators cut incentives for deploying solar panels, creating a glut in the market that actually sank the average price of solar panels in the U.S. to 38 cents per watt in 2018 from 45 cents per watt in the same period in 2017. The levies also failed to increase U.S. solar manufacturing jobs, which fell nearly 9 percent last year.

In the Northeast and West Coast, state-level policies were another headwind. California’s growing slate of solar-friendly policies did little to protect utility-scale projects from the concerns over tariffs, leading to a decline of 9,576 jobs in the Golden State. In Massachusetts, the delayed release of a program to pays homeowners to install solar panels shed more than 1,300 jobs from the state’s industry. North Carolina, Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia and Hawaii all saw three-figure job decreases, too.

Elsewhere, the clouds parted. Florida surpassed the Bay State as the No. 2 solar employer, adding 1,769 jobs last year after regulators allowed homeowners to start leasing panels. Illinois, Texas, New York, Ohio and Washington all saw increases of up to 1,308 new jobs jobs.

For the first time, the report included jobs in Puerto Rico, where the budding industry that sprouted after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s electrical grid now employs nearly 2,000. (The Solar Foundation excluded that figure from the total since it wasn’t included in previous years’ tallies.)

A map from the report shows where jobs increased and decreased from 2017 to 2018.
A map from the report shows where jobs increased and decreased from 2017 to 2018.
The Solar Foundation

The industry still has far to go to diversify its workforce. Women made up just 26 percent of solar workers, down slightly from a year earlier. Gender nonbinary individuals, counted for the first time this year, were 1.4 percent of solar employees, or 3,427 people. The workforce is over 73 percent white, with Latinos comprising the second-largest group with just shy of 17 percent of the total.

Yet the number of veterans in the solar industry ― while slightly lower than a year earlier, falling to 7.8 percent of employees from 8.6 percent ― still outpaced the 6.6 percent of the nation’s overall workforce.

“We have hundreds of thousands of veterans transitioning every year, and that’s an excellent pipeline for solar,” Gilliland said. “They have strong work ethics, training, a lot understand safety in electronics, and they have the calling; they want to serve.”

That could help solve another the problem the industry is facing: fewer qualified workers. Just 21 percent of jobs in solar require a bachelor’s degree. But roughly 60 percent of jobs call for some experience in solar. Twenty-six percent of solar companies last year said it was “very difficult” to find qualified candidates to fill open positions, a 44 percent increase from the 18 percent of firms that reported similar troubles in 2017. Installation and project development experience were the biggest demands, with 33 percent of companies reporting it was “very difficult” to find employees, nearly double the number from a year earlier.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about what the tariffs would be.”

- Ed Gilliland, Solar Foundation

Solar jobs paid wages competitive with the median national wage of $18.12 per hour. Non-electrician solar jobs paid on average $18.92 for entry-level workers and $28.11 for mid-level workers. Electrician jobs ranged from $24.32 for entry-level jobs to $32.43 for mid-level gigs.

Yet, unlike the much dirtier pipeline and coal-train industries some policymakers hope renewables can supplant, so few solar jobs were unionized that the Solar Industry stopped tracking them a few years ago.

“The last time we were tracking union labor, it was something like 3 percent of the overall workforce,” Gilliland said. “It was a small number. We think it’s probably still pretty small.”

The Green New Deal resolution unveiled last Thursday aims to change that. The nonbinding measure, authored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), calls for scaling up solar and wind to generate as close to 100 percent of the nation’s power from renewables over the next decade as possible, and it includes provisions about increasing workers’ right to organize. It also stipulates Green New Deal projects pay union wages.

At the very least, future legislation based on the ambitious resolution is likely to bolster what’s already expected to be a good year for the solar industry. In 2019, companies expect employment to surge 7 percent to 259,400 jobs.

“The outlook,” Luecke said, “is very, very bright.”

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