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California Solar Industry Loses Over 15,000 Jobs, Companies Now Reopening and Rebuilding

Installers work on a rooftop solar array at a million-square-foot Amazon Fulfillment Center in Tracy, California in March 2018.
Rich Ibarra/CapRadio
Installers work on a rooftop solar array at a million-square-foot Amazon Fulfillment Center in Tracy, California in March 2018.

California's solar industry was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but it's beginning to show signs of recovery.

When the state’s stay-at-home order went into place, many solar companies began to furlough employees.

“Basically everyone was laid off until we could figure out what was happening,” said Lars Ortegren, general manager of California Solar Electric Company in Grass Valley. The company installs a mix of rooftop solar and corporate projects, mostly in Nevada County.

About a third of the company’s 35 employees are back on the job after Ortegren said the company received help through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. He says the funds will only last until June.

“We’re in a place of trying to muster as much stamina as we can to kind of get through this,” Ortegren said. “I hope at some point we're going to be able to operate at our full capacity and hope that the economy will rebound.”

The Grass Valley company isn’t alone. A new survey of over 200 solar companies by the California Solar and Storage Association, or CALSSA, shows that 21% of solar and storage businesses furloughed employees — that’s around 15,700 lost jobs in a month and a half.

“It did feel like a little bit of a sucker punch,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of CALSSA. “It matches with the anecdotal experience we were hearing from all of our member companies. We even had a board member lose his job.”

Del Chiaro says customers just aren’t buying a lot of solar during the pandemic.

“We saw a very drastic kind of cut off of customer interaction, but that was closely followed … by local governments shutting us down,” said Del Chiaro.

She says some of the hardest hit companies are in the Bay Area where shelter-in-place orders were put into place early. But she’s hopeful about new orders from the California Energy Commision allowing solar workers to return to work starting next week.

“If we don't get back to work quickly, we may lose those trained employees, people that we've put a lot of time and energy into training them in the skill of installing this clean energy infrastructure … which will hurt us even further,” she added.

She says there are rebates and incentives for consumers who want to install solar, but that funds are limited and more state and federal support is needed to get “that money straight into the pockets of everyday consumers.”

David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, says “we would like to do much, much more. And it certainly would be helpful if we had an administration in DC that was on the same page in terms of supporting the clean energy sector.”

But he says the commission is encouraging solar companies across the state to get back to work.

“I don't think that it was crystal clear to everybody … that they are in fact all essential workers,” said Hochschild.

In late April, the commission clarified that solar and energy storage installers are essential workers and can return to work if they practice social distancing and follow public health guidelines.

“For the market to remain healthy it still requires customers to make the decision to buy; that part of the equation is still in the hands of customers,” he said.

The types of energy workers allowed are those that “maintain, ensure, or restore the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power,” according to the announcement.

“The rationale for doing that was that these installations help increase our resilience during the crisis and put Californians in a better position to be able to weather the difficulties,” said Hochschild.

He also says it’s important for people in the energy sector to return to work in case of a utility power shutoff when fire season begins. He recalls a solar microgrid — a compressed version of a large solar power grid — in Humboldt County withstanding a power shut-off in 2019 and becoming a power island in the middle of the region.

“They didn't notice the power was out because the microgrid worked,” Hochschild said. “So, because the situation we're in right now is uncertain in duration ... the declaration of these essential industries is really important, because we want to keep that activity going.”

The decision comes months after a December announcement that one million homes in California have solar panels on them. As of January 1st the state began requiring all new homes to have solar electricity in the form of rooftop solar or a community solar system. The price of rooftop solar for a home can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000.

“We were the first state in the country to do that and we will not be the last,” Hochschild said.

Ezra David Romero