By Tony Clifford
The latest numbers from The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census didn’t surprise me, but they certainly put me in a bad mood.
That’s the number of solar workers who had jobs at the end of 2016 who, as the calendar settles in to 2018, no longer have them—and that number is only the beginning of an avalanche of job losses that will result from the mystifying decision to impose tariffs on imported solar modules because two foreign-owned companies couldn’t compete.
Suniva and SolarWorld.
Remember those names when you’re planning your next project. Those are the two companies that cost the solar industry nearly 10,000 jobs as clearly as if they’d handed out the pink slips themselves.
In the fantasy world only SolarWorld and Suniva inhabited, the tariffs wouldn’t destroy jobs, they’d grow jobs. They’d protect jobs. They’d be the beginning of an unending solar boom. And some people, including the president believed them.
But SolarWorld and Suniva were never in this for you. They were always in this for themselves. And their executives are unethical, not ignorant.
They were fully aware of what tariffs would do to the U.S. solar industry, but their aim was to get their foreign owners more value in bankruptcy, playing with your livelihoods like they were so many chips in a poker game.
While the Trump tariff was not announced until January 2018, uncertainty over the trade case was the primary factor that caused the 3.8% decrease in the number of American solar jobs. The trade case, filed last April by the two shameless charlatans named above, forced many solar firms (including Standard Solar) to reconsider their 2017 hiring plans.
The solar industry expected slower growth in 2017 because of the record number of megawatts installed in 2016 as a result of the (previous) uncertainty engendered by the battle over the investment tax credit (a crisis that, while averted, caused 2016 to be an explosive year for solar growth that couldn’t be repeated immediately).
But let’s look at hard numbers: Between 2012 and 2016, the average year-to-year growth in solar jobs was more than 20% annually. Everyone expected that rate of growth to slow, but no one—not even the most pessimistic of analysts—expected an actual loss of jobs. No one expected that prior to April.
Then what history will call “the Section 201 trade case” happened, and all bets were off. We pleaded, the Solar Energy Industries Association pleaded, nearly every sane voice in the industry screamed at the top of their lungs that tariffs would result in job losses. The final estimate was 23,000 in 2018 alone. And we’re reaping the whirlwind of the “Trump tariff” that was sown in the hot air and empty promises made by the two petitioners.
My biggest worry is that the solar industry has yet to see the worst impacts of the Trump tariff. We are already beginning to hear about pending layoffs, especially in companies heavily involved in the utility-scale sector. A disturbing note in the Solar Foundation report is that “jobs went up in 29 states with emerging solar markets.”
These states—Texas and much of the southeast and Midwest—are the states that were just becoming cost-competitive in the previous two years. The increasing cost of solar modules as a result of the Trump tariff will devastate solar development in these states—and others—in 2018 and beyond. My stomach is in knots at the thought of what these already depressing numbers will metastasize into in next year’s report.
This is what happens when you have a president who inexplicably allows the interests of two foreign-owned companies to hold the American solar industry hostage, creating volatility and uncertainty in a market that needed steadiness. So, although nothing can destroy the solar industry, these Trump tariff wounds are going to take time to heal—time many of the displaced workers don’t have.
Tony Clifford is the CDO of Standard Solar and member of the SEIA Board of Directors