The American Solar Industry Has Exploded in Size as Costs Plummet

The Solar Foundation has seen big jumps in size.

The American solar industry has seen rapid growth over the past eight years, a report released Tuesday shows.

The Solar Foundation’s annual jobs census shows a slight decline in employment over the past year, but the overall trend points to a much larger industry aided by plummeting prices.

The report shows the industry today employs 242,000 people, a 3.2 percent decline from 2017 that represents 8,000 lost jobs. The industry has still experienced an overall surge since 2010, when it supported just over 93,000 jobs, booming in size by 159 percent.

This also means far greater capacity installed: while just 929 megawatts were installed in 2010, that figure is estimated to have reached 11 gigawatts for 2018, a 12-fold increase in size. This is also paired with a drop in installation prices, moving from $6.65 per watt for a residential install in 2010 to just $2.89 per watt in 2018.

Costs are likely to fall even further, particularly for the end user — one analysis by UBS claimed renewable energy may drop in price to the point where boiling a kettle will “effectively be free” by 2030.

“A lot of the challenges we faced in the past have dissipated over time as the solar industry matures and people become aware of the cost competitiveness of solar,” Erin Noble, director of business operations for StraightUp Solar, which designs and maintains commercial installations, said in a statement.

The price of energy and number of jobs over this decade.
The price of energy and number of jobs over this decade.

The report links the annual decline in jobs to the Trump administration, which set a 30 percent tariff on crystalline silicone modules and cells on January 22, 2018, reducing five percentage points each year until 2022. This led to uncertainty, leading utility-scale projects with longer lengths to hold off and assess the effects on hardware prices. Utility-scale projects comprised just 39 percent of new deployments in the third quarter, where it normally represents around 60 percent.

“It’s an optimistic report despite the fact we’re seeing job declines over the past two years,” Andrea Luecke, CEO of the foundation, told The Guardian. “That’s because the macro-picture since we first started tracking solar jobs in 2010 has exploded.”

The industry is still expected to rise in the coming years. A report last month from the Energy Information Administration stated that wind and solar, which provided three percent of the United States’ energy generation in 2018, will comprise 13 percent of generation in 2020. Around 18 percent of the 24 gigawatts of power set to come online next year is expected to come from photovoltaic solar panels.

Installations in the future are likely to come in a variety of packages, beyond the simple panels-on-a-roof. Tesla plans to ramp up production of its solar roof in the coming year, which blends panels into tiles to make them seem invisible to the untrained eye. Another concept by Australian designer Ben Berwick generates power through folded window blinds, ideal for apartments. SolarWindow has also demonstrated solar-generating windows ideal for tall buildings.

The Tesla solar roof.
The Tesla solar roof.

Even the land used by solar farms could provide unexpected benefits. Researchers at Germany’s University of Hohenheim found that growing crops underneath the panels could improve land use efficiency by 60 percent. It’s an idea adopted by India’s solar-powered Cochin International Airport, and Minnesotan officials have released guidelines encouraging owners to do the same.

The fast-paced nature of the industry means even technology in conventional panels is shifting at breakneck speed. John Wilson, design project manager for solar developer Southern Current, said in a statement that sometimes components can grow outdated mid-way through a project, adding that “in order to ensure each system has the greatest economic feasibility and system performance, we must constantly reevaluate our system designs for any given project, as system component technology is always changing.”

With the Earth experiencing its fourth-hottest year on record last year, the rapid shift to clean energy can’t come soon enough.

Update 02/13 9:35 a.m. Eastern time: An earlier version of this story claimed that a UBS analysis found that renewable energy will “effectively be free” by 2030. It has now been updated to clarify that this refers to the amount of energy used to boil a kettle.

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