New York experienced nearly 800 percent growth in solar installations over the past five years, but a recent report says the state may have actually lost solar jobs in 2016.
The Solar Foundation’s annual solar jobs census found New York to be one of just six states in the country to lose solar-based jobs last year. The February report found that New York had 8,135 solar jobs in 2016, down 1 percent from the 8,250 jobs in the industry in 2015.
New York is still one of the top 10 states for solar jobs in the country and its job loss is within the margin of error for the survey. But at the very least, the numbers indicate a slowdown in hiring in the industry.
In interviews with experts in the state’s solar field, one word kept coming up to explain the jobs slowdown: uncertainty.
“There was some policy uncertainty, certainly with New York REV and how things are shaking out,” said Alexander Winn, a program director for the Solar Foundation, which is based in Washington, D.C.
New York REV refers to the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision, a long-term energy strategy backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. REV encompasses a lot of broad goals, such as New York generating half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It also includes a lot of wonky policy proceedings. Under the program, New York is attempting to rework a series of operational facets of its energy system, such as the costs for large-scale energy projects to interconnect to the grid and how solar power owners should be compensated for the excess energy they produce, known as net metering.
Uncertainty over what will come from those proceedings has stalled some projects, according to David Sandbank, director of NY-Sun, the solar arm of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. He said the state could soon see steady growth in community solar, but those projects are held up now while the state Public Service Commission develops rules for compensating developers and people who benefit from the power that community solar projects produce.
Community solar refers to projects that don’t have an end-user and instead allow multiple people to benefit from energy credits produced by a solar array. The projects open up solar power to people who can’t develop such systems of their own, such as renters or homeowners whose rooftops aren’t suitable for panels. Changing policy can help community solar flourish in the state, Sandbank said, but in the meantime installation is stalled.
“They can’t move forward yet until they know what the compensation methodology is,” Sandbank said. “And so I’ve got a pipeline right now larger than what is built in the state ready to move forward once there is clarification.”
Sean Garren, Northeast manager for the nonprofit solar advocacy group Vote Solar, said community solar projects also open up additional jobs in sales and marketing as developers need to find and communicate with customers for the power an array produces.
“The state of the New York solar market is still relatively strong and the potential is obviously enormous,” Garren said.
Doug Hertz, president of Sunrise Solar Solutions LLC, a Briarcliff Manor-based solar installer, said he has seen some national companies leave New York after struggles, which he said may have contributed to job losses. He added that a slowdown could also be attributed to low natural gas prices stabilizing energy costs in the state.
“At the beginning of the decade, we were seeing these crazy increases year over year and it really pushed people to look for alternative sources,” Hertz said. “So when natural gas prices dropped, now all of the sudden people’s bills have been steady for a year or two. So I think it took some of that urgency out of folks.”
Jamie Glover, the president of White Plains-based solar installer Green Hybrid Energy Solutions, said he believes smaller firms in the state performed better than national companies, which he said often use a lease model for residential solar sales.
“The market realized that leases were not as advantageous and the larger companies felt that pain,” Glover said, adding that he expanded his workforce from 14 to 26 last year.
The state has been able to boost its solar capacity in the past five years, according to a press release from Cuomo’s office. About 750 megawatts of solar power have been installed since 2011, a 795 percent increase. That’s enough to meet the needs of about 121,000 homes, according to Cuomo. The state attributed the increase to lowering costs of solar equipment, state grants and tax incentives and a growth in installers.
The mid-Hudson region, which includes Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster and Sullivan counties, had about 163 megawatts of solar installed in 2016, according to state numbers. That is second among the state’s 10 defined economic development regions. Only Long Island has more with 214 megawatts.
The Solar Foundation jobs census is based on surveys of close to 4,000 solar establishments in the country between October and November 2016. The Solar Foundation found that solar industry job growth in the country outpaced overall growth in the U.S. economy by 17 times. Solar employment increased by more than 51,000 jobs total. The state with the most jobs, by far, is California, where its 100,000 jobs are about 85,000 more than runner-up Massachusetts. Texas, Nevada and Florida round out the top five, though New York isn’t far behind in sixth place.
Past Solar Foundation census data show that New York consistently added solar jobs from 2010 through 2015, though the foundation did not release state job numbers in its 2012 census. Nationwide, solar jobs increased about 180 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the data. In New York, solar jobs increased by about 130 percent over the same time period.
NY-Sun’s Sandbank said that regulatory matters may stall solar progress occasionally in the state, but the important number to consider is the $1 billion state solar fund. Cuomo committed in 2014 to provide that support to NY-Sun to help the state reach 3,000 megawatts of solar by 2023.
“There are regulatory goals within that that will sometime stall a business model,” Sandbank said. “But when I say long-term and transparent, I really mean Governor Cuomo’s one billion-dollar initiative saying that we have the political will, we’re here, we have earmarked these dollars and they are going to be spent in solar.”