State's solar-related jobs fall without federal subsidies, fans say

Joe Napsha
| Friday, Oct. 28, 2011

Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest number of solar-related jobs in the nation, but estimates show a decline over the past year -- a sign the industry needs state and federal subsidies, supporters said on Thursday.

"We need the continued support from the state and federal governments," said Richard Rothhaar, director of business development for Conservation Consultants Inc., at a news conference in his organization's South Side building.

A Department of Energy loan guarantee program ended last month that awarded up to $13.6 billion in federal backing for 17 large solar projects. A Treasury Department program that allows businesses to get cash grants in lieu of a tax credit ends in December. In Pennsylvania, the state's Sunshine program that funds installation of solar equipment, has run out of money.

The state had 4,703 solar-related jobs at 750 establishments during the period of August 2010 to August 2011, according to a new annual report from the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit lobbying organization in Washington. The same organization last year estimated Pennsylvania had 6,700 solar-related jobs at 282 establishments.

Without offering any figures of his own, Rothhaar said there are fewer solar-power related jobs in the state this year than in 2010 as a shake-out occurs in the industry.

The Solar Foundation, however, considers the 2010 employment figures a "base-line" estimate, and there are thousands of additional solar-related jobs in the state that were uncounted in the current survey, said Andrea Luecke, acting executive director of the foundation. The figures do not include government or nonprofit entities, academic institutions, accountants, lawyers and some research firms.

One Pennsylvania solar business that eliminated jobs was Solar Power Industries Inc., a component manufacturer that laid off 175 workers this spring at its Rostraver plant because of low-cost foreign competition and a global glut of silicon wafers and silicon cells.

On a national scale, the Solar Foundation's job count determined there were 100,000 solar-related jobs at more than 17,000 locations, a 6.8 percent growth rate from 2010. The foundation is projecting job growth of almost 24 percent nationally, or 24,000 jobs next year. Those jobs are involved in sales, production, installation of all solar technologies, ranging from photovoltaics to solar thermal systems for homes, businesses and utilities.

To create more jobs in Pennsylvania, the industry needs incentives offered by the federal and state government, said Erica Staaf, clean water advocate for Penn Environment of Squirrel Hill. That government assistance includes the federal tax incentives, state rebates and state requirements that require electric distribution companies to increase the amount of solar power that must be included in their portfolio.

More money also is needed to provide job training for workers in the solar power industry, because companies have had difficulties in finding experienced and qualified workers, Staaf said.

The state's Sunshine program, which provided $108 million in funding to defer the cost of solar power installation on residential and commercial buildings from 2008 to 2011, has been fully committed for solar power users and has a waiting list, said Maureen Mulligan, government affairs director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

No additional money was inserted for the program in the state budget because of the budget crisis, said state Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick.

A bill in the state House would increase requirements for the state's electric utilities to purchase solar-generated power as part of their renewable energy supply portfolio.

Readshaw said he supports such a bill to increase the requirements for utilities to purchase solar power from state-generated sources, which will create jobs.

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