Infrastructure Week has finally arrived in the form of a history-making bill that somehow squeezed itself out of Congress last week and is awaiting the final touch of President Joe Biden’s signature. That’s great news for the solar industry in Georgia, which appears determined to dig itself out from a 5-year slump. The only problem now is how to grow their solar workforce, and that’s a big problem considering that Georgia is among the states hardest hit by the so-named “Great Resignation.”
Solar Industry Hits The Skids In Georgia…
There has been quite a bit of nattering about Georgia’s ranking of #7 for installed solar capacity in the US on a state-by-state basis, but that lofty position is somewhat illusory. For the past 5 years, the Peach State has been coasting on the banner year of 2016, which occurred back when former President Obama’s solar-friendly policies rippled out to produce multi-megawatt solar installations at military facilities in the state.
In other words, the state’s private sector market for solar has yet to prove itself. The pace of solar installation in Georgia went on a tailspin as soon as Obama left office in 2017. The US military continued to be a solar customer, but according to stats kept by the Solar Energy Industries Association, utility-scale projects practically dropped off the map in the two years after Obama finished his second term.
The industry enjoyed a bounce in 2019, but has never caught up to the glory days of 2016 since then.
…Georgia Solar Industry Picks Self Up, Dusts Itself Off
So far in 2021, Georgia’s solar industry has continued along the same meandering path. SEIA, for one, does not seem to anticipate that the pace will pick up significantly. As of this writing, SEIA projects 2,082 megawatts in installed capacity over the next 5 years, bumping Georgia all the way down to the #17 slot among US states.
On the other hand, in recent months the Peach State’s solar industry has shown some interesting signs of life.
The Wall Street Journal has noted that PV-hungry tech companies and revenue-hungry rural communities are pushing the solar industry along, even without the benefit of favorable state policies.
One indicator is a 250 megawatt solar project that has just gotten under way in Lee County. That’s more than 10% of SEIA’s 5-year projection in one fell swoop. The new solar array is under the umbrella of Silicon Ranch, which specializes in combining agriculture-friendly land use in tandem with PV panels.
More Signs Of Life For Peach State Solar Industry
Another positive indicator has appeared on the manufacturing side. Earlier this month, the US company NanoPV Solar announced it will open a new factory and create approximately 500 new jobs in Sumter County. That’s a great leap forward for solar jobs in Georgia. According to SEIA’s last count, the solar industry workforce numbered around 4,466.
Wait, Nano who? NanoPV has been skipping along under the CleanTechnica radar, but the New Jersey-based company has not been letting the grass grow under its feet.
“NanoPV’s solar panels are completely certified for their performance, safety and life time for a minimum of twenty-five years by U.S. and international certification standards and agencies such as IEC, UL, TUV and CE,” the company explains, adding that “NanoPV has unique technology based on nano-crystalline silicon, crystalline silicon and proprietary light-trapping & TCLO technologies,” and furthermore that “NanoPV possesses the lowest manufacturing cost per Watt for any kind of PV technology anywhere in the world.”
The addition of NanoPV makes Georgia a centerpiece for solar manufacturing in the US. Korea’s Hanwha Q-Cells opened a facility there in 2019, creating about 600 jobs, and earlier this month Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm took the opportunity to pitch President Biden’s clean tech plans with a trip to Georgia.
The Missing Pieces Of Georgia’s Solar Puzzle
That’s all well and good on the utility scale end of things. Unfortunately for small-scale solar fans, the state’s rooftop solar industry is not fully sharing in the benefits.
The utility Georgia Power has been touting its multi-megawatt solar PPA deals, but its state-sanctioned pilot plan for promoting rooftop solar maxed out its 5,000 customer cap last summer, leaving rooftop solar customers with the prospect of having to sell their excess solar kilowatts to the utility at wholesale and buy them back at retail.
On the other hand, with natural gas prices on the upswing, there could finally be a break in the logjam. Last month, for example, the City of Savannah announced a rooftop solar deal involving 22 municipal buildings, apparently with the help of a third-party PPA.
While all that is getting sorted out, the state’s rural electric cooperatives may be able to help get the solar industry ball rolling again. REC’s are member-owned utilities aimed at lighting up rural communities on the heels of the Great Depression. Though their fossil energy commitments can be difficult to untangle, they are emerging as a significant force in the renewable energy transition.
Some interesting developments for Georgia in that area include eye-catching solar “sunflowers” for the Cobb Electric Membership Corporation, and new clean tech education partnerships between coops and their school districts.
Solar Jobs & The Great Resignation
One issue squeezing solar growth across the US is a shortfall in skilled solar workers. Training programs are helping, but rapid growth in the solar industry continues to make hiring a challenge.
As the COVID-19 outbreak took hold last year, one bright spot seemed to emerge as solar installers began to see applications from workers shut out of warehouses and other facilities that had been closed due to the pandemic.
That raises the possibility of attracting workers away from their current positions by offering higher pay and better working conditions. However, opportunity is only one factor behind the “Great Resignation” trend of job-quitting, and Georgia provides an example of other factors that could impact the ability of the state’s solar industry to grow its workforce.
Compared to most other states, workers in Georgia do appear to be more likely to quit their jobs during the pandemic. However, it is not so obvious that they are all quitting for greener pastures.
In Georgia, the problem is that many workers are quitting or scaling back hours to care for family, not to seek better jobs in the solar industry or anywhere else, for that matter. According to one recent study, family care was cited by 20% of workers who quit their jobs entirely.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has made a huge deal about the 500 jobs to be created by the new NanoPV factory, but if he really wants to keep the factory running, he might want to help Georgians keep from dying and suffering long term health impacts from COVID-19.
“Torn between public health and his conservative base, Kemp only encourages vaccination and sends mixed messages on masks,” is how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gently summed up the Governor’s response to surging cases as the Delta variant of the virus took hold last summer.
After Infrastructure Week, It’s Time To Help The Solar Industry Build Back Better
Putting all of this together, it looks like the new infrastructure bill will make plenty of work for solar industry stakeholders in Georgia and elsewhere, if only they can find enough workers to get the work done.
Other construction sectors are in a similar fix, and that’s exactly why the next step has to be the reconciliation bill, aka Build Back Better, which will pay for social infrastructure that improves public health, enables more family caretakers to work outside the home if they choose, provides more support for working parents, and ramps up education and job training programs.
US Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have been threatening to throw the Build Back Better baby out with the bath water, but if all goes according to plan the Senate will hold a vote before Thanksgiving, and then we’ll all get to see which way the social infrastructure cookie crumbles.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Featured image: Solar installation at Fort Benning in Georgia via US Army.