Trade Policy Jitters Fuel Decline in Solar Jobs

Solar industry jobs fell 3.8% last year, with 71% of companies reporting that a trade dispute over imported panels negatively impacted them.
Matthew HellerFebruary 7, 2018

Employment in the U.S. solar industry fell last year for the first time in a decade, with the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policies being partly responsible, according to a new survey.

The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit focused on solar energy research and education, said the number of solar jobs in the U.S. declined by 3.8%, or almost 10,000 jobs, to 250,271 in 2017 — the first decline since the foundation began its National Solar Jobs Census in 2010.

Since 2010, employment in the solar industry had grown 168%, jumping from just 93,000 jobs across the U.S. to 374,000 in 2015-16. Combined, traditional fossil fuel industries employ 187,117.

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The report attributed the decline in part to industry jitters over a trade case filed in April 2017 in which two U.S. solar companies — Suniva and SolarWorld — claimed low-priced solar panel imports had unfairly damaged their businesses. In response to the case, President Donald Trump last month imposed 30% percent tariffs on imported panels.

“Although the Census survey was conducted while the trade case decision was still pending, most (71 percent) Census respondents reported that the case negatively impacted them in 2017,” the Solar Foundation said.

Nearly 78% of solar jobs are in installation, sales and project development, compared with just 15% in manufacturing, according to the foundation.

One green-technology research company has predicted that Trump’s tariffs could lead to the loss of as many as 88,000 jobs connected to installing solar power equipment. The Solar Energy Industries Association predicts 23,000 jobs will be lost this year.

Ed Gilliland, author of the foundation’s report, told Reuters that the impact of the tariffs may not be fully felt until 2019. “Many in the industry reported that the tariffs would increase the cost of panels and suppress sales and employment, particularly in the demand-side sectors of the industry,” which includes installation and sales, the study found.

The 2017 slowdown also followed a record-breaking year in 2016 as developers raced to take advantage of a federal tax credit that was meant to expire that year.