Solar boosting jobs, boosting solar

As the solar industry expands, so does its jobs impact – and with jobs come political influence, that can bolster the industry against clean energy detractors and international competitors alike.

The issue of employment has returned suddenly, over recent days, to the debates on both sides of the Atlantic over policies to support renewable energy.

In the last few months, clean energy has slipped in popularity with some politicians, reflecting everything from the scandal over the $US535 million extended by the US government to bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra, to concern in austerity-hit Europe about the cost of feed-in tariffs.

However, as the industry has expanded over recent years, so has its jobs impact – and with jobs come political influence. That influence can bolster the industry, both against supporters of fossil-fuel power, and sometimes against renewable energy competitors from abroad.

Last week saw an example of the latter, with the US International Trade Commission voting unanimously in Washington in a preliminary ruling, supporting a petition by SolarWorld against alleged dumping of Chinese-made PV cells. The ITC will now mount a full investigation.

SolarWorld and a number of other, unnamed companies say that Beijing uses cash grants, raw-material discounts, preferential loans, tax incentives and currency manipulation to boost Chinese PV exports, and are demanding 100 per cent tariffs on imports into the US. As if to rub home the jobs impact, SolarWorld recently trimmed 200 posts at its factory at Camarillo in California.

The impact of cheap imports on manufacturing jobs may be negative, but installers are even more important in employment terms and they do not tend to mind so much whether the PV panels come from China, the US or Europe.

At the end of last month, SolarCity, one of the biggest US installers, said it had landed a loan of up to $US350 million towards the $US1 billion cost of a project to install rooftop panels on military housing and offices across 33 states. The total capacity of the programme is slated to be 300MW, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that the employment created in installing the panels could be some 6,000 man-years.

Over in the UK, the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government upset the emerging solar industry on October 31 by proposing cuts of some 55 per cent in the feed-in tariffs available for small-scale PV installations of less than 50kW. The most controversial aspect of the cuts was that they were timed to come in on December 12, only six weeks later and before the end of the consultation process, rather than in April, as had been expected.

The move has run into wide criticism. The Confederation of British Industry said that Prime Minister David Cameron had scored an "own goal" with the cuts. "Moving the goal posts doesn’t just destroy projects and jobs, it creates a mood of uncertainty that puts off investors and they wonder what’s coming next," CBI director general John Cridland said in a speech in mid-November.

There was a rally against the cuts in Westminster in late November, and Gaynor Hartnell, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, said: "There are certainly a large number of individuals and companies very exercised about the proposed changes. Whilst many companies and customers can live with the reduced tariff rates, it's the speed of implementation that has been so disruptive."

Last week, Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing said: "These planned cuts are having a devastating impact. Companies have contacted me reporting lost business ranging from £60,000 to £2.5 million. Others have had to cancel job offers to new staff members, and one company is likely to make six people redundant. And schemes to install solar PV on thousands of social houses – providing cheap energy to those in fuel poverty – have already been cancelled."

If politicians were sceptical about the potential of solar as both job creator and power source over the coming decades, then a report last week by the International Energy Agency may have given them pause for thought.

The IEA's Solar Technology Perspectives report predicted that solar – PV, solar thermal and solar water heating – could account for a third of the world's energy supplies by 2060 if the right emissions-reduction policies are adopted by governments around the world.

Reproduced with the permission of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. For further information, see www.newenergyfinance.com