Solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld’s demand that the U.S. impose duties on Chinese crystalline silicon solar panels is causing a rift in the solar industry, revealing that what may be good for manufacturers is not necessarily good for workers downstream or upstream of the factory. Installers and component manufacturers, whose jobs depend on the price of solar panels continuing to fall, are making a case that a solar trade war with China would be devastating to the U.S. solar industry.
The dispute inspires us to revisit the Solar Foundation’s 2011 National Solar Jobs Census [PDF]. When the census was released in October, results showed that the solar industry experienced a job growth rate of 6.8 percent since the last report in 2010 – nearly 10 times the job-growth rate in the overall economy. This was compared to a 2 percent job loss in the fossil fuel electricity generation sector. But, these top-line results, like the headlines surrounding the solar panel trade dispute, do not tell the whole story. This year, the Solar Foundation specifically wanted to find out what kinds of jobs “solar employers” are creating, and who is qualified for them. The findings shed light on what factors are driving growth in the industry, and which jobs could be affected by the SolarWorld decision.
With help from BW Research Partnership’s Green LMI Consulting division and technical assistance from Cornell University, the Solar Foundation surveyed more than 2,100 companies engaging in solar installation, wholesale trade, manufacturing and utilities. As of August 2011, the census identified more than 17,189 “solar establishments” employing 100,237 “solar workers”. (A “solar worker” is defined as an employee who spends at least 50 percent of his or her time supporting solar-related activities.)
The census reveals that only 13.8 percent of solar workers are employed in manufacturing—with the remaining workers being employed in installation, sales and distribution, utilities and “other”. Of the 24,000 respondents representing the manufacturing sector, only 23.1 percent of them work for firms that manufacture PV modules. Many more manufacturing respondents were employed by firms that make other solar energy equipment, including trackers, frames and racking for concentrating solar power (CSP) systems (66.7 percent), and glazed collectors for solar water heating systems (43.8 percent).