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U.S. solar jobs are key to industry growth

By Eric Goodwin

It's an exciting time in the U.S. right now, with more people interested and talking about climate change—and the role the solar industry has in addressing this crisis. It's truly an amazing and yet polarizing time as the solar industry grows and looks to scale up jobs to meet these demands.

When it comes to jobs, the solar sector has been a U.S. success story despite the negative impact of tariffs and lack of federal support recently.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA, www.seia.org) the U.S. impact from just the Section 201 tariffs is severe.

  • 62,000 U.S. jobs were lost or never hired.
  • 10.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar will not be deployed.
  • $19 billion in private investment won't be realized.
  • U.S. solar module prices are now among the highest in the world.

Even with these challenges, solar has been one of the fastest growing job sectors since 2012, with over 242,000 solar jobs in the U.S. (source: 2018 Solar Census). These are real jobs—in areas such as manufacturing, supply chain, engineering, and construction.

To clarify, this is not a U.S. versus the world opinion, as we need our global partners to align our efforts to meet the steep challenges of climate change. But if we are to achieve the aggressive renewable goals and scale of Solar + Storage, U.S. solar jobs have to be front and center of these efforts.

There are many challenges facing our industry as we look to accomplish these goals.

For solar PV systems, the struggle continues between component cost versus total system installed cost that has created a "race to the bottom" for U.S. suppliers (modules and steel) that many of you reading this column live with every day.

I believe this way of thinking is harmful to our industry for the long term, as it deters innovation and invites shortcuts in quality, all in the quest for the lowest dollar per watt.

While many times, U.S. products are somewhat higher in cost than offshore, customers will need to shift the paradigm of what constitutes value and appreciate total cost (this is not easy). Suppliers also must continue to lower costs through innovation and continuous improvement. This brings the question: at what higher price would customers spend for products to be Made in the USA?

An additional barrier is that the current administration largely ignores the existence of solar job creation, and in many cases is the resistance. The idea that coal jobs, with all of the downsides (health and safety risks), provide a better future for the American worker is not based in reality—but it is a reality for our times.

Despite these challenges, it is not all gloom and doom. Some great things are happening that have moved the dial recently.

Many states have taken the initiative to enact climate change policy and aggressive renewable targets for the future, with job creation a component of these plans. States such as New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, and Illinois stand out in these efforts (many more not mentioned). Cities in these states and others have created new business incentives that attract companies to build factories in the U.S.

This has driven the increase in U.S module capacity, with new plants expanding from offshore in the southeast, such as Jinko Solar (FL) and Hanwha Q Cells (GA).

U.S.-based First Solar recently expanded their Perrysburg, Ohio, facility with a second plant, adding many new jobs and fostering optimism in the region.

Lastly, our solar lobby SEIA has made it a priority to put U.S. solar jobs at the forefront of their policy objectives, to help lead the fight. SEIA recently created a division focused on manufacturing jobs as part of the Solar + Decade initiative.

A recent summit in Chicago brought together a diverse team of thought leaders from many backgrounds, with the focus on sharing ideas and best practices for job growth.

As solar workers, how do we take these efforts to the next level, to continue solar job growth?

I believe there are three levers that can help achieve this:

  1. Lobby Efforts/Policy. We need to get more involved with our federal and state representatives, for them to hear our voice and policy issues. The quality of jobs created in solar adds credibility to any Green New Deal.
  2. Job Training/Vocational programs for solar jobs. This is important to provide opportunities for young people who support climate change policy, to participate and grow their careers.
  3. Partnerships. Companies working together to align product offerings (such as PV and storage) or co-marketing are examples of companies coming together to be more competitive. We need to look for these opportunities where it makes sense.

Even though our administration ignores the facts, climate change is real, and the flywheel is turning with a sense of urgency to solve this crisis. Solar power continues to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, having created quality jobs in the process.

These accomplishments are only the beginning, and we all have the chance to do more to support continued job growth in the U.S.—if we make it a priority and work together.

Eric Goodwin is the Director of Business Development for OMCO Solar, a U.S. manufacturer of solar racking and tracker solutions. He has 10 years of solar industry experience, helping startup tracker company RayTracker exit to First Solar in 2011, and then helping launch the initial First Solar-designed tracker.

Prior to working in solar, he had 20 years of manufacturing and supply chain experience in diverse industries (Automotive/Aerospace). He joined OMCO in 2017 to help scale the launch of their OEM racking products and holds a bachelor's degree in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix.