New Jersey’s solar sector shed 10 percent of its jobs last year, reflecting a nationwide trend of declining employment blamed both on tariffs on solar panels imposed by the Trump administration and on state policy changes.
The state lost 696 jobs in 2018, dropping the total employment in New Jersey’s solar industry to 6,410, according to the National Solar Jobs Census by The Solar Foundation. Nationwide, nearly 8,000 jobs were lost, or 3.2 percent of the sector, according to the report.
The drop comes at a perilous time for the state’s solar industry, which is facing a retrenchment because a state law enacted last spring mandates the end of the current system of financing for solar installations. The state has not yet determined what will replace it, creating uncertainty in the sector and fears of a steeper drop next year.
The jobs decline also reflected a slowdown in installed solar capacity, according to the report. Solar companies delayed many utility-scale projects in late 2017 while awaiting the outcome of a petition for new tariffs on imported solar panels and cells. Those delays led to reduced capacity growth and fewer jobs in the first three quarters of 2018.
The losses, the second year in a row that solar jobs have declined, occur after seven years of steady growth in the sector, as states like New Jersey ramp up their reliance on renewable energy.
In January 2018, the Trump administration imposed a 30 percent tariff on solar imports, less than originally expected, to help solar manufacturers here in the U.S.
“The impact these unnecessary tariffs are having on America’s economy and its workers should not be ignored,’’ said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “The damage, from a decline in jobs to a decline in deployment, far outweighs any potential benefits the administration intended.’’
Policy challenges and a difficult business climate contributed to lower jobs numbers in some states with established solar markets. New Jersey, ranked fifth in solar installations nationwide, moved to replace its existing financing program amid concerns it is too costly to ratepayers, who end up subsidizing solar.
With developers uncertain what kind of financial incentives will be part of a new solar program, some fear the market in New Jersey could crash as new solar installations come to a halt. Among other things, developers are pressing the state to grandfather solar projects that have been approved, but are not yet built, into the existing solar financing system.
“If we don’t have that, no one can build anything,’’ said Fred DeSanti, who represents the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, a group pressing the state to come up with details over what a new solar program will entail.
Lyle Rawlings, founder and president of Advanced Solar Products in Flemington, noted solar advocates are worried about problems with how the state is moving away from the existing financing program. “At the moment, the uncertainty is extreme,’’ he said.
Long-term, however, proponents are optimistic about the sector’s prospects.
“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 of The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to boost the use of solar technology .
New Jersey wants 50 percent of its electricity to be produced by renewable energy by 2030. That commitment should demonstrate to the sector that the state is committed to moving forward with clean energy like solar, according to Ed Gilliland of the foundation.
Others are more pessimistic. “At a time when we want to ramp up renewables, unless we come up with a fix for our solar program, we could see a bigger drop next year,’’ warned Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.