Tennessee's solar industry adds jobs last year despite nationwide decline

Tennessee's solar industry adds jobs last year despite nationwide decline

February 12th, 2019 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Employment in the solar industry is shining less brightly since President Trump imposed tariffs on imported solar panels nearly two years ago, although Tennessee's solar industry has managed to buck the nationwide drop in solar jobs last year due to its solar equipment manufacturing in the state.

The Solar Foundation reported Tuesday that the solar industry suffered a loss of nearly 8,000 jobs in 2018, its second straight year of of job losses after seven years of growth. Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, blamed the 3 percent decline in U.S. solar jobs last year primarily on a drop in solar panel installations because of higher prices due to the import duties.

Solar jobs in the region

› Tennessee grew from 4,411 jobs in 2017 to 4,690 jobs last year

› Georgia declined from 4,310 jobs in 2017 to 3,696 jobs last year

› Alabama grew from 488 jobs in 2017 to 614 jobs last year

Source: The Solar Foundation

"The impact these unnecessary tariffs are having on America's economy and its workers should not be ignored," she said. "The damage, from a decline in jobs to a decline in deployment, far outweighs any potential benefits the administration intended. We hope this data serves as a wake-up call to the administration that the tariffs should be reversed before any more Americans lose their jobs."

The U.S. solar industry employed 242,343 workers in 2018, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2018 prepared by The Solar Foundation. Tennessee and Alabama were among 24 states where solar-related employment still grew during 2018.

In Tennessee, solar employment grew by 6.3 percent last year to nearly 4,700 jobs, including more than 650 at the $2.5 billion Wacker Chemie polysilicon production plant in Charleston, Tennessee. Wacker and the Shoals Technology Group in Portland, Tennessee each employ hundreds of workers and continue to expand by supplying the growing industry outside of Tennessee and much of it outside of the United States, according to Gil Melear-Hough of the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association.

"We have global suppliers for the solar industry in Tennessee and they continue to grow supplying this growing industry of the future, even though we haven't seen much growth recently in Tennessee installations," Melear-Hough said. "Facebook and Google have helped encourage TVA to add more solar, but we have a lot of mom-and-pop installers struggling with the residential market in Tennessee as TVA has cut back what it pays for solar and hasn't made some of the investments we've seen in other states."

Google and Facebook combined are investing nearly $2 billion in the Tennessee Valley and have contracted with TVA for a combined 674 megawatts of renewable power from solar farms in Alabama and Tennessee.

TVA has reduced what it pays to buy power generated from rooftop and other small solar installations to better reflect its actual costs, TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said. But even with fewer new installations of solar compared with other Southern states like Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, TVA still tanks No. 5 among all electric utilities in the nation for renewable energy sales in 2018, Fiedler said.

Over time, however, Melear-Hough said falling solar power production costs from improved efficiency and power storage capability could make solar the dominant source of electricity in 20 years in the Tennessee Valley.

"Despite two challenging years, the long-term outlook for this industry remains positive as even more Americans turn to low-cost solar energy and storage solutions to power their homes and businesses," said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director at The Solar Foundation. "However, it will take exceptional leadership at the federal, state, and local levels to spur this growth and address the urgent challenge of climate change. Expanding solar energy and storage across America will create high-quality jobs, reduce carbon emissions, boost local economies, and build resilient and adaptive communities."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.