NJ’s Solar Stumble: Sector Sheds 1,000 Jobs in Past Year

While rest of country showed strong 25 percent growth in solar jobs, New Jersey’s solar employment fell by 14 percent

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The solar sector helped the economy grow last year by creating 51,000 jobs across the nation, but not in New Jersey, once one of the biggest success stories in the industry, where more than 1,000 jobs were lost.

While the rest of the country witnessed a 25 percent increase in job growth in the sector, New Jersey solar employment fell by 14 percent, according to the nonprofit Solar Foundation. It is one of only four states to experience a drop in jobs in the field, its annual report said.

The annual survey is startling given that the state experienced its second-biggest growth year ever, installing 353 megawatts, according to data compiled by the New Jersey Clean Energy Program. The state has more than 66,000 solar projects deployed.

For years, solar has been one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy, but the annual report by the foundation suggests otherwise. Its survey of thousands of solar businesses said total jobs in New Jersey fell as of November 2016 to 6,056, a drop from 7,071 over the previous 12 months.

Some, like Lyle Rawlings, president and founder of Advanced Solar Products of Flemington, and one of the more active solar developers in the state, found it inconceivable given the data compiled by the state’s clean energy program.

Others, however, are not surprised, noting the state’s renewable-energy requirements for increasing reliance on solar are expected to fall off dramatically next year, and the numbers may reflect that reality.

“I’m not surprised it is moving in that direction,’’ said Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist who represents several solar developers and has been pushing a bill (S-2276) that would provide a fix to the solar sector.

The legislation, awaiting action in the Assembly, is aimed at averting a collapse in the sector, which happened four years ago when investment in new projects dried up, eliminating thousands of jobs in the process.

That scenario could occur again next year, according to DeSanti and others, as state mandates to deploy solar systems ease and so do financial incentives to make it happen. “As the price drops, the financial guys can’t support the projects any more,’’ DeSanti said.

Alexander Winn, a program director at the Solar Foundation, said it was surprising that so many jobs were lost in this year’s census by the organization, especially given that it marks a reversal in the growth trend of past years.

A number of factors may have played a part in the losses, Winn said, including the maturing of the market and uncertainty caused by the legislation to accelerate the solar mandates stalling.

“Employees are looking for policy continuity,’’ Winn said. A number of other states where the number of solar installations increased also experienced job losses, including New York, Nevada, and Massachusetts. In New Jersey, about half of the job losses occurred in the Monmouth County area, he said.

“New Jersey’s solar market is contracting because other states have leapfrogged ahead of us,’’ agreed Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “This is a wake-up call to revitalize the state’s solar market.’’

Rawlings, too, fears a crisis that could crash the markets. He, however, is urging the state to completely revamp its system of incentives for encouraging solar. That system relies on utility ratepayers subsidizing the cost of electricity produced by solar arrays by surcharges on their monthly bills.

Rawlings has long argued that that system is too expensive. Instead, he advocates a new tariff system where a fixed price over the long term is set for the electricity solar panels produce, a model used by most other states.

“We are trying to craft a solution, but it is hard to do in the middle of a crisis,’’ Rawlings said.

In most other states, the report found the solar market thriving. One out of every 50 new jobs created in the United States in 2016 was created by the solar industry, the report found.

Overall, there were 260,077 solar workers in 2016. The number of solar jobs has nearly tripled since the first solar census by the foundation was released in 2010. In 2016, the five states with the most solar jobs were California, Massachusetts, Texas, Nevada, and Florida.

New Jersey ranked ninth in the nation in the number of solar jobs, and 17th in solar jobs per capita, according to the report.