National Solar Jobs Census 2020
About this Report
Since 2010, the National Solar Jobs Census has been the definitive measure of solar energy industry employment in the United States, charting the growth of the solar workforce alongside the rise of solar energy as a major contributor to the U.S. energy supply and economy as a whole.
The Census is a collaborative effort of the Solar Energy Industries Association, The Solar Foundation, and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Primary data collection and analysis is performed by BW Research Partnership, the premier independent energy employment research firm. Unless stated otherwise, all data including in this report is from BW Research Partnership.
This report tracks domestic solar employment across all solar industry market sectors and across the supply chain, from residential solar installation to utility-scale construction, and from raw materials to finished products.
Starting in 2015, the methods and data used to create the Census have been shared with the U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) that tracks employment across all energy technologies.
In this report, a solar worker is defined as anyone who spends 50% or more of their time working on solar related activities. In the past, the USEER has used a broader definition that includes workers spending any amount of time on solar.
- The U.S. solar industry employed 231,474 workers in 2020, a 6.7% drop from 2019
- Employment declined across all labor categories and in most states
- The pandemic was largely responsible for the job decline, as companies have yet to fully recover from spring 2020 work stoppages and the ensuing economic recession
- Despite job loss, the solar industry installed record levels of solar capacity in 2020, indicating increases of labor productivity ranging from 2% - 32% across market segments
- Labor productivity improvements were a result of growth in average system size, less labor-intensive customer acquisition and increased competition for skilled labor
- The industry grew more diverse in 2020, with workforce shares at all-time highs across most demographic measures of diversity
- 10.3% of solar workers are unionized, above the national average and comparable with similar construction trades
- Wages for solar workers are similar to, or higher than, wages for U.S. workers in similar occupations
- While the solar industry is on a trajectory to reach 400,000 solar jobs by 2030, employment will need to exceed 900,000 workers by 2035 to reach the 100% clean electricity goal set by President Biden
Introduction: Solar Workforce Amid the Pandemic
The U.S. solar energy industry was on track for a record year in 2020 with both installations and employment expected to reach all-time highs. Installations were already up through February 2020 and initial impacts on the industry were limited to concerns about global supply chains until Covid-19 took hold in the U.S., triggering stay at home orders and other protocols that impacted many industries, including solar.
Lockdowns that began in March 2020 in major solar markets from California to the Mid-Atlantic put a halt to most residential and commercial installations – the largest source of solar jobs – leading to tens of thousands of layoffs and furloughs. Many local governments stopped processing, or struggled to process, building permit applications before making the transition to remote or online systems, leading to a backlog for new projects once installations resumed.
Many residential and commercial solar companies adapted to physical distancing requirements by moving away from in-person sales and found significant success reducing their costs and winning new business. Moreover, the overall increase in people working from home, using more electricity and spending less money elsewhere increased interest in solar. This helped solar companies rehire many of their laid-off and furloughed staff. But the challenges of pandemic life have prevented total solar employment from returning to pre-pandemic levels. For example, some workers with children in remote school could not return to work.
Utility-scale solar construction was generally allowed to continue work that had already begun, thanks in part to federal and state guidance that deemed large-scale solar construction to be essential work. This sector never saw the steep employment drops experienced by residential and commercial solar installers. However, many large solar contractors experienced labor shortages throughout the remainder of the year.
The overall U.S. residential construction boom has also created fierce competition for a limited supply of construction trades workers, especially electricians.
Those who remained, returned or joined the solar workforce in 2020 found new ways to increase their productivity and, in the end, the solar industry managed a record year of installations despite significant challenges.
Solar Jobs Fall Primarily Due to Pandemic
- U.S. solar employment dropped by 6.7% in 2020 to 231,474, its lowest level since 2015
- The drop-off began with the pandemic, which forced many companies to tighten their labor budgets in the face of lockdowns that halted work and drops in demand last spring
- Though demand for solar has largely recovered across most market segments, many companies have not yet hit their pre-pandemic employment levels as they navigate economic uncertainty
Solar Deployment Hits Record Levels Despite Job Loss
- Despite employment reductions, U.S. solar installations reached a record 19.2 GWdc in 2020
- The industry was able to achieve these totals despite reduced employment in part due to a rapid increase in the share of utility-scale deployment
- Utility-scale installations represented 73% of all solar capacity installed in 2020, a new record
Because utility-scale projects use fewer installation workers per kilowatt deployed, the increase in utility-scale market share allowed for greater deployment with lower labor intensity
- Utility-scale installations represented 73% of all solar capacity installed in 2020, a new record
- However, equally important was an increase in labor productivity across all market segments
- Residential productivity increased 19%
- Non-residential productivity increased 2%
- Utility-scale productivity increased 32%
Labor Productivity at Record Levels
- Solar labor productivity has increased steadily over time, but took a major leap forward in 2020
- In the distributed solar segments, and residential in particular, the pandemic fundamentally altered the way companies do business
- Residential sales shifted heavily from in-person to online/remote sales, reducing salesperson labor needs
- As a result of increased time at home, homeowners became more cognizant of their energy use and spent less on travel, making customer acquisition easier and further reducing labor needs
- As residential construction boomed in the latter half of the year, competition for skilled labor forced efficiency improvements
- In the utility-scale segment, the average system size nearly doubled from 2019 (to 43 MW), with economies of scale reducing labor needs and increasing productivity
2020 Employment Breakdown by Sector
- Installation and construction-related employment continues to be the largest job segment in the industry, representing 67% of all jobs
- Distributed installation jobs alone (Residential, Commercial and Community Solar) make up more than half of all industry employment, with large portions of jobs in other categories also supported by distributed solar demand
- Of these installation and construction jobs:
- 55% residential
- 18% commercial
- 8% community solar
- 19% utility-scale
- Installation jobs as a share of total jobs grew by nearly 2 percentage points, while all other categories declined modestly in share
- Workers in manufacturing jobs represented 14% of all industry employment, while Sales and Distribution and Operations and Maintenance represented 11% and 4% of all jobs, respectively
- The ‘Other’ category, comprised of workers in fields like finance, legal, research, advocacy and communications, makes up 4% of all solar workers
Jobs Decline Across All Categories Amid Pandemic
- Installation jobs dropped by 4.2% to 154,610 as the pandemic reduced staffing levels in the residential and commercial segments in particular
- Manufacturing jobs were down 9.3% in 2020, landing at 31,050
- Manufacturing production slowed to accommodate increased spacing requirements, and some factories were shut down temporarily. While many facilities have recovered, many of the same pandemic requirements still apply
- Sales & Distribution Jobs dropped by 12.2% in 2020, to 25,663
- This category relies heavily on demand from the installation and manufacturing segments. As deployment and production slowed, wholesale and retail trade and distribution was also impacted, leading to employment reductions
Installation Jobs Drop Across Market Segments
- The residential and commercial segments were hit hardest by the pandemic in the spring as social distancing requirements limited installers’ ability to access job sites and obtain new business. Despite increases in demand over the second half of the year, the segment has yet to ramp up to pre-pandemic levels. Total residential and commercial solar installation jobs declined by roughly 5,500 in 2020 or 4.3%
- As a result of essential service designation in most states early in the pandemic, most utility-scale solar construction continued. However, labor availability at many projects was still down as workers missed time due to the pandemic. Utility-scale jobs decreased by 1,300 over 2019, or 4.3%
Solar Workforce Grew More Diverse in 2020
- Nearly all demographic measures of diversity in the solar workforce saw modest increases in 2020, bringing numbers to an all-time high across most categories
- Women in solar grew from 26% to 30%
- While the industry overall lost workers in 2020, the number of women employed in solar increased by nearly 4,800 to more than 69,000
- Since 2015, solar industry employment has increased by 39% for women, 92% for Hispanic or Latino workers, 18% for Asian workers, 73% for Black or African American workers, and 19% for veterans
- Over that same time, overall solar industry employment has risen by 11%
- The share of workers who are members of Labor Unions now stands at 10.3%
Diversity in Solar is Comparable to Other Industries
- Though the solar industry has made significant progress in diversifying over the past 5 years, there is still a great deal of work to be done before the solar industry matches the diversity of the country
- Solar workers identify as “female” at almost three times the rate of the overall construction industry
- Veterans make up a significantly larger share of the solar workforce (9%) than the overall economy (6%)
- Environmental justice and equity are embedded in the solar industry’s policy priorities and growth planning and will be critical as the industry rises to meet the interrelated challenges of climate change, economic inequality and social and environmental justice
- Solar workers are represented by labor unions at rates similar to the overall economy and at comparable levels in construction and manufacturing
- This is despite a significant share of solar employment in the home improvement sector, where a large share of employers are sole proprietorships where unionization generally does not apply
- Primarily as a result of the pandemic, solar employment dropped in 44 states in 2020, representing the most broad-based labor reduction on record
- The pandemic had uneven impacts at the state level. States with large distributed solar markets experienced the most employment loss, as residential and commercial segments were hit hardest by work restrictions and have yet to fully recover. Markets with larger shares of utility-scale deployment fared somewhat better, though those labor forces were also reduced by workers missing time due to the pandemic
- In a handful of markets, rapid year-over-year increases in deployment, often in utility-scale solar, helped to offset job losses in distributed markets, leading to modest levels of employment growth or lower levels of job loss
- Of the top 10 states for solar employment growth in 2020, 8 of them also rank in the top 20 for solar 2020 deployment growth
- Despite the labor downturn in 2020, solar employment growth over the last 5 years has been robust in most states. Markets in Florida, Utah, Texas and Virginia have all benefitted from expansions in both distributed and utility-scale projects over that time frame. 42 of 50 states have increased their solar employment since 2015
- While state-level solar employment often correlates closely with solar deployment, many jobs exist outside the installation sector and are more resistant to fluctuations in local solar installations. States with large manufacturing presences, such as Ohio and Georgia, primarily serve demand outside their states. Likewise, the existence of corporate clusters in metropolitan areas like New York City and San Francisco helps sustain solar job presence regardless of deployment growth
- The flow of labor across state lines also clouds the linkages between employment and deployment. Many installation companies, particularly in the northeast, have staff that work across state lines, sometimes on a daily basis. Despite this, the Census labor accounting requires that their employer attribute their labor to a single state
Solar Job Growth Over Time
Solar Compensation is On Par with Similar Trades
- Compensation in the solar industry is comparable with similar occupations in other energy industries and higher than U.S. averages for most of the same positions
- Solar installers make similar amounts to their peers in the roofing industry
- Solar electricians make more than the average electrician
- Construction managers in solar make more than average and more than peers in other energy industries
Future Workforce Needs
- Under the current trajectory, and without significant policy shifts, the solar+storage industry will employ 400,000 workers in 2030
- The path necessary to achieve President Biden’s goals to decarbonize the grid and expand domestic manufacturing will require more than 900,000 solar workers across the supply chain by 2035
What is a "Solar Worker"
- In this report, a “solar worker” is any person who spends more than 50% of their working hours on solar-related activities
- 92% of solar workers who meet this threshold spent 100% of their time on solar in 2020
- This report shares its underlying statistical sample with the United States Energy Employment Report (USEER) and the E2 Clean Jobs America 2020 report, which counts anyone who spends any time working in solar as a solar employee, including those who spend less than 50% of their time on solar work
- Counting workers who spent any amount of time on solar work in 2020 yields a total of 316,675 jobs
The 2020 Solar Jobs Census uses publicly available data from the 2021 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) on solar employment produced by BW Research Partnership, the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO). Previous report methodology can be found at: usenergyjobs.org. The research methodology is the same as previous years and an updated link for 2021 will be provided when available.
For More Information
- Shawn Rumery, SEIA | [email protected]