Solar Job Growth Optimism Explained — A #CleanTechnica Interview With Ed Gilliand, Senior Director Of The Solar Foundation

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Ed Gilliand, the senior director of the Solar Foundation, the premier source of census information on employment in the US solar industry, recently offered CleanTechnica an interview about why he is so optimistic on job growth for the sector.

Today, February 12th, the Solar Foundation released its latest report on jobs in the solar industry. The total number of jobs is now up to 242,000, a 159% increase since 2000 when the Foundation analysis began and found 93,000 jobs. This growth in employment tracks with the growth in installed capacity, which is now about 60 gigawatts (GW), with expectations for 11.5 GW this year. Not a bad story, the group says.

More solar workers are climbing roofs. Credit Ellen M Banner-Seattle Times

Yes, 2018 was a bit of a bump in the jobs growth road, when a 3.2% decline took place, largely because of the uncertainty surrounding the federal tax credit extension, which slowed orders. And future years may reveal slower growth as the industry matures, but the march toward solar power as a baseline US energy source now seems to be inexorable.

CleanTechnica: Why is your outlook for continued growth so bullish?

Gilliand: We would anticipate 2019 to be a growth year, in line with the census forecast of 7% growth. There is a record amount of utility scale development in the pipeline that is coming online over next few years. The industry has been facing a fair amount of policy uncertainty in several states, but with the leading roles of California and Massachusetts, a lot of state policies also are getting worked out..

CleanTechnica: How will businesses peripheral to solar — like storage — help drive job growth?

Gilliand: One other reason for optimism is the expansion of ancillary business around the solar base. This year we started counting a new category of jobs as solar+storage, and found 3,900 jobs not counted in the 242,000 solar total. The solar+storage jobs were counted based on surveying storage companies. So we are seeing more related jobs that solar is helping to develop.

Also, the 3,900 jobs is not an exhaustive number; we know there are other jobs out there. We didn’t include manufacturing, nor staff at companies like Sunrun and Tesla because more and more customers want both technologies provided in single package. It’s tough to parse. There are hundreds of energy battery manufacturers across country serving products that range from watches to cars; it’s a big landscape yet with only a few companies specializing in solar batteries.

CleanTechnica: Is the recent bump up in Chinese solar panel pricing a cause for concern?

Gilliand: The Chinese panel prices decreased a lot in 2018, while there was a cut back on solar incentives, so there is room for them to ratchet prices back up and still keep the industry strong; a 5% price increase is not a lot in the greater scheme of things. There always will be an ebb and flow in supply and where panels are made, so I don’t see panel pricing as a major constraint.”

CleanTechnica: Will the decline in installation cost bottom out and slow solar growth any time soon?

Gilliand: Average installed costs have declined 68% over the last decade, and another 18% drop is expected over the next few years. That should accelerate growth.

CleanTechnica: How is training affecting solar job growth?

Gilliand: Only 34% of all solar companies have on the job training. There is a lot the industry can do to increase the amount. NABCEP and other organizations are providing some of the best training you can get, and the industry wants more of it. Our census of new hires over the last 12 months showed that only 21% of all solar companies required a Bachelor degree, and 61% wanted prior experience. So companies are now loosing up on the need for experience, because there is more on the job training.

Many states will take NABCEP training in place of journeyman electrical licenses. Still, more solar companies are moving toward on the job training than insisting on NABCEP.

Another thing affecting on the job training is state licensing requirements for solar installations. A dozen or two states still require electrical licenses, or a given ratio of electricians to other solar workers. This can be a big challenge, so when you look at this year as booming for construction, it can be tough for solar installers to get enough electricians. They are the second most difficult job title to fill at construction companies and third most difficult to fill in solar companies.

CleanTechnica: Is any level of governmental restrictions or bottlenecks limiting solar installation staffing?

Gilliand: We did a number of interviews with EPCs, and didn’t get any specific complaints about government restrictions. There are some unions that may require hiring from a local shop for a local job, however. In general there are a lot of geographical constraints on hiring, and it is virtually impossible to hire all the needed positions locally. We have no data on it, but local jurisdictions shouldn’t require local labor if it’s not there.

CleanTechnica: How do leading EPCs treat local hiring in their project development?

Gilliand: Swinerton, for example, is doing something very cool in being very focused on hiring locally. It is a value they bring to their contracting service. They said 90% of their workforce comes from the local community. For a typical 80 MW plant, about 300 local people are employed for 6 months. McCarthy Building also said something similar, as may hire as many as they can locally. For them, a typical 100 MW plant may employ 300 local hires, managed by 25 permanent staff from Phoenix. This practice is definitely something more companies aim to do. It helps them to win new contracts.

CleanTechnica: Thank you.

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