North Carolina’s solar power workforce increased by nearly 20 percent last year in what may have been a final surge in the state’s eight-year-long solar power revolution.
The workforce tally was issued Tuesday by The Solar Foundation in Washington. The foundation counted 7,112 solar workers in the state last year, up from 5,950 solar workers in 2015. The state ranked 8th nationwide for total solar industry workers.
North Carolina catapulted to second place nationwide in the power capacity of its solar farms, totaling about 2.1 gigawatts (or 2,100 megawatts) today, from just a smattering of household solar panel arrays eight years ago. But that rate of solar growth appears to be leveling off.
Solar farms are becoming costlier to build since the state legislature allowed a 35 percent tax credit for renewable projects to expire in January 2016. Legislators opted not to extend the tax credit because solar prices have fallen dramatically in recent years and lawmakers felt the state subsidy was no longer necessary.
The Solar Foundation’s data indicates North Carolina may have experienced a spike in solar farm installations in 2016. One likely explanation for the gain in solar installation is that developers submitted projects before the tax credit expired and built them throughout last year. The tax credit remained in place throughout 2016 for projects that were already under construction.
North Carolina’s installation jobs grew by 942 last year; nearly half the state’s solar jobs – 3,326 – were in installation.
But those are temporary jobs that will only exist as long as new solar farms are in the development pipeline. The solar jobs that are leading indicators of future growth were down or about flat: project development (up just 1 job last year) and sales and distribution (down 29 jobs).
“It’s possible that we will see a leveling off,” said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center.
But Kalland also said solar prices have come down dramatically so that the tax credit is no longer essential for large industrial solar farms to become economically viable.
“It’s very fair to say that the loss of the tax credit is having a significant impact on residential and commercial rooftop solar,” Kalland said. “But the giant projects will continue to grow.”
The Solar Foundation is still analyzing its solar workforce data but said that North Carolina’s solar sector jobs came in five categories: installation, manufacturing, sales and distribution, project development and “other.” The foundation did not have information on which solar companies or which regions of the state are employing these workers.
Only several years ago, some were predicting North Carolina would surpass 3,000 megawatts – or 3 gigawatts – of installed solar capacity by 2023.
The Solar Foundation is not the only measure of the state’s solar workforce.
The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a membership nonprofit counted 5,439 full-time positions in solar industry last year. That tally was issued last month as part of the organization’s annual census that counted 34,294 full-time clean energy jobs in the state in 2016.
NCSEA said North Carolina had 337 companies in the solar sector, generating $1.4 billion in revenue last year.
Both tallies were based on employer surveys.