Despite a nationwide drop in jobs and fewer local incentives, the solar industry in Tennessee added jobs at one of the fastest rates in the country last year, especially in Southeast Tennessee.
Solar employment in the Volunteer State grew by 24 percent, or 863 more jobs, during 2017 from increased production of solar equipment, including at the Wacker Chemical plant in Charleston, Tenn.
The biggest gains in solar industry employment came last year in metropolitan Cleveland, where the $2.5 billion Wacker plant began producing a key element for solar panels last year in Charleston, Tenn. Although Wacker has suspended polysilicon production since a chemical explosion in Charleston last September injured five workers, the company has maintained most of its 687-employee staff while Wacker works to both resolve problems that may have led to the explosion and continues on a $150 million expansion of the facility.
As a result of Wacker, solar-related jobs in metro Cleveland jumped from only 55 in 2016 to 734 last year.
In metro Chattanooga, solar employment grew by 16 percent last year to 342 persons. EPB added a 1.35 megawatt community solar array on its property off of Holtzclaw Avenue last year.
In metro Nashville, which is adding a similar community solar project this year, jobs in the solar industry jumped 31 percent last year to 1,489, according to the National Solar Jobs Census released Wednesday.
"The increase in solar jobs in Tennessee last year was driven by jobs growth the manufacturing sector, with an increase of 1,517 solar manufacturing jobs," said Avery Palmer, senior communications manager for The Solar Foundation, a solar advocacy group that conducted the study. "Jobs in solar installation actually declined somewhat."
Tennessee is benefiting from major polysilicon and other solar-related equipment makers such as Wacker Chemical in Charleston and Shoals Technologies Group in Portland.
But nationwide, solar industry employment fell last year for the first time since The Solar Foundation began tracking employment numbers in 2010.
"After six years of rapid and steady growth, the solar industry faced headwinds that led to a dip in employment in 2017, including a slowdown in the pace of new solar installations," said Andrea Luecke, president of The Solar Foundation. "Uncertainty over the outcome of the trade case also had a likely impact on solar jobs growth."
The production tax credits for solar are scheduled to diminish through 2019 and in January the Trump administration also imposed import quotas on solar panels imported into the United States. The import limits may aid some domestic manufacturers, but they are expected to raise the price of some solar panels and hurt installation of additional solar capacity.
In spite of the employment drop in solar across the United States last year, The Solar Foundation estimates solar employment still totaled 250,271 across the United States in 2017, which is still double that of the coal industry, five times as big as the nuclear power industry and nearly as big as the natural gas industry.
"The fact that jobs went up in 29 states is an encouraging sign that solar is taking hold across the country as a low-cost, sustainable, and reliable energy source," Luecke said.
Despite last year's decline, the solar workforce increased by 168 percent over the past seven years, from about 93,000 jobs in 2010 to over 250,000 jobs in 2017.
California remains the state with the largest number of solar jobs nationwide, but jobs in California decreased 14 percent in 2017. In Massachusetts, the state with the second largest solar workforce, employment decreased by 21 percent.
Although Tennessee led the Southeast in job gains in the solar industry, the Volunteer State lacks the state incentives and utility investments in solar power many other states are providing the industry.
The Solar Energy Industries Association has given Tennessee an "F" for its net metering and interconnection policies and Tennessee is yet to adopt any renewable portfolio standard or support for community solar projects.
A recent study of renewable energy in the Southeast by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was an early backer of solar power, hasn't kept pace with other utilities in supporting solar power generation in the region.
"Looking at the low performance path that TVA is currently on, coupled with their current rate change process that further undercuts solar development in their service territory, it is clear that TVA will need a serious course correction to avoid being in last place in the region," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
But TVA insists its share of renewable energy generated from solar, wind and hydroelectric dams is still growing and subsidies to encourage more will only raise everyone's power bills. Renewable sources, combined with nuclear power, mean that TVA should get more than half of its power this year from non-carbon sources — the highest share for the federal utility in more than a half century.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 757-6340.