Coronavirus Wipes Out 5 Years of US Solar Job Growth

The U.S. solar sector has lost 65,000 jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, erasing five years of job gains, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

According to a new SEIA analysis, the American solar industry now employs around 188,000 people, down from 250,000 at the beginning of the year. Many of those jobs could come back in an economic rebound. Still, it's a stark reversal for what had been one of the country’s fastest-growing industries, forecast by SEIA to reach more than 300,000 jobs by June of this year before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.

The solar industry is now losing jobs at a faster rate than the broader American economy, SEIA says. Federal relief looks uncertain. 

While SEIA doesn’t directly track jobs across its member companies, surveys of members ranging from nationwide solar developers to smaller regional installers back up the figures, said Dan Whitten, SEIA's vice president of public affairs. The survey revealed “tens of thousands of jobs lost, and a lot of jobs that were furloughed [or] people’s hours being cut back,” he said. 

Josh Lutton, president of Illinois-based solar installer Certasun, said the state’s March 20 stay-at-home order forced his company into a three-week hiatus, and since then, business has been slow at what is usually the busiest time of the year.

“We didn’t generate revenue for three weeks when we weren’t installing,” Lutton told GTM. Certasun's roughly 50 employees now follow social distancing and workplace hygiene guidelines, but municipalities have halted permits and inspections. Leads for new customers have dropped, and some customers are canceling their plans.

“They’re saying, 'I just lost my job, I’m worried about losing my job, or I lost a lot of money in the stock market and I want to keep my powder dry,'" Lutton said.

Residential and commercial solar sectors hit hardest

SEIA’s analysis aligns with federal data on job losses since the coronavirus pandemic forced large-scale stay-at-home orders and business closures across the country. Last week, BW Research Partnership  reported that nearly 600,000  U.S. clean energy workers filed for unemployment benefits in March and April. Of those, around 96,000 were working in renewable energy, primarily wind and solar power, with solar likely representing two-thirds of that figure, Whitten said. 

Solar isn’t the hardest hit of the clean energy sectors — that unfortunate distinction goes to the energy efficiency sector, which employs more people, many of them in jobs that require being able to access homes and businesses. But solar is suffering greater job losses than other sectors such as electric vehicle manufacturing or power grid infrastructure. 

Most of the job losses in solar are coming in the residential and commercial sectors, which employ far more people per gigawatt of installed capacity than the larger utility-scale...