The US solar industry posted job loss in 2017, according to the Solar Foundation. The National Solar Job Census 2017, which was recently released by the foundation, states that the US solar industry employed nearly 10,000 fewer people in 2017 than in 2016. The 2017 job census was the eighth of its kind since 2010 and the first to report a net loss on the national scale.
Globally, the solar photovoltaic (PV) industry continues to grow and generate employment opportunities in many countries. Although the US has also benefitted from the solar boom, the outlook of this market has become gloomy lately due to the actions taken by the US government to address trade imbalance.
According to the Solar Foundation, the workforce of the US solar industry for the entire 2017 totaled 250,271 persons, amounting to a 3.8% drop – or a net loss of 9,800 jobs – from 2016. In the long-term perspective, however, the US solar industry recorded a huge employment growth of 168% since 2010, when the total workforce was just around 93,000 persons. The 2017 solar job census also predicts that the US solar industry will go through a rocky period in 2018 due to the position taken by the US government regarding solar imports.
The census report points out three major factors constraining the job growth in the US solar industry during 2017. First, the massive increase of installed capacity in the country during the 2015-2016 period led to an expected market slowdown in 2017. The Solar Foundation notes that there was a doubling of installed capacity in the US between 2015 and 2016 because the market anticipated the expiration of the 30% federal investment tax credit (ITC) at the end of 2016. However, the ITC was later extended. Second, the domestic installation demand entered a plateau phase during 2017. Third, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) during much of the year was investigating the petition for solar import tariff under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act. The drawn-out investigation, together with other economic and political issues, had created much uncertainty in the domestic solar market and impacted major local solar industries such as California’s.
On other hand, 29 states posted solar job growth in 2017. Gains were especially noticeable in Utah, Minnesota, Arizona, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee. These six states can be regarded as emerging solar regional solar markets, and together their solar workforce expanded by 1,167 persons on average for 2017. The state with the largest increase showed a gain of 1,762 jobs.
California saw the largest solar job decline in 2017 with the industry’s workforce shrunk by 13,636 persons. Massachusetts and Nevada also saw significant drops in solar employment opportunities for that year, respectively recording losses of 3,053 and 1,807 jobs. Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, said the general slowdown in the domestic market during 2017 came after six years of rapid growth. Furthermore, ITC’s investigation of the Section 201 petition generated the market uncertainty that contributed to sliding job figures and installation demand.
The Section 201 petition was filed by solar product manufacturer Suniva Inc. in April 2017, and SolarWorld AG later joined the case as a plaintiff. After nine months of deliberation, the Whitehouse finally announced a 30% tariff on solar imports (covering PV cells and modules) in January 2018. This penalty, which may be implemented this year, is expected to create tough times for the US market in 2018.
US-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predicts that the high tariff will cost 23,000 jobs in the domestic solar sector in 2018. Meanwhile, the industry tracker GTM Research forecasts that the installed PV capacity in the US over the next five years (the 2018-2022 period) would be reduced by 7.6 gigawatts due to the trade barrier.
An earlier, preliminary survey conducted by the Solar Foundation in the fourth quarter of 2017 found that respondents at that time generally believed that the US solar market would gradually turn around in 2018. This tentative survey furthermore forecasted that the total employment in the domestic solar industry will grow by 5.2% annually in 2018. A breakdown of this anticipated job growth indicated that installation jobs were to grow by 6.2% annually, totaling 8,000 new positions. Project development jobs were to grow by 5.2% annually, totaling 1,900 new positions. Around 400 new manufacturing jobs will also be added during the year. However, the foundation’s analysis was made before the Whitehouse announced the Section 201 trade remedy. Therefore, these forecast figures may be too optimistic.
Prior to the announcement of the Section 201 tariff, the Solar Foundation had also forecasted that newly installed capacity in the US for 2018 would reach 10.1 gigawatts, lower than the 11.8 gigawatts of 2017 and the 15.1 gigawatts of 2016. The latest US market forecast by GTM Research for 2018 reached similar conclusion, but its analysis factored in the Section 201 tariff. Because of the Whitehouse announcement, GTM Research further revised downward the newly installed capacity figure. Based on the organization’s latest projection, newly installed capacity in the US for 2018 will total 10.1 gigawatts, down 7% from 2017. However, GTM Research also stated that installations in the US would bounce back in 2019, coming to an annual total of 11.9 gigawatts.
(The above article is an English translation of a Chinese article written by Daisy Chuang.)