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Solar-industry jobs picture not so sunny in Arizona in 2013, report says

Two Lighthouse Solar employees install solar panels on a Colorado house in 2011. A new report says installation continued to be the largest job sector in solar-related industries last year. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Two Lighthouse Solar employees install solar panels on a Colorado house in 2011. A new report says installation continued to be the largest job sector in solar-related industries last year. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

WASHINGTON – Arizona posted the second-highest number of solar-industry jobs in the nation for the second year in a row in 2013, despite losing 1,242 jobs from a year earlier, according to a new report.

The Arizona job losses came as solar jobs in the rest of the nation grew at a record pace, climbing 19.9 percent over the year to reach a total employment of 142,698, according to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2013, which was released Tuesday.

The largest share of those jobs was in California, which led all states for the second year with solar-industry employment of 47,223 jobs in 2013. Arizona was a distant second with 8,558 jobs, down from 9,800 the year before.

“Arizona is a special case. Only a few states actually lost solar jobs,” said Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation.

In addition to the national census, the foundation for the first time offered a “deep dive” into the numbers from California, Arizona and Minnesota in 2012. The report on Arizona pointed to the recent completion of the Solana Generating Station near Gila Bend as a major reason for the job losses in the state, saying construction jobs affiliated with the plant went away when it went online last fall.

Experts also pointed to policy changes in Arizona that could have depressed demand for new home solar projects because of fears of higher fees from utility companies or the possibility of burdensome paperwork.

Carrie Cullen Hitt, a senior vice president at the Solar Energy Industries Association, believes that people have been intimidated by policy changes that have amounted to more paperwork for consumers and concerns about the affordability of solar panels.

Luecke also noted Wednesday that when Suntech closed a solar panel manufacturing plant in Goodyear last year, it might have had a “ripple effect” on the industry in the state.

“When Suntech eliminated 43 jobs it shook a lot of people’s confidence,” she said.

Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington Solar Institute, said that there has been significant pushback against solar power, saying recent debate over issues such as net metering have spawned ads that have people “being misinformed about how solar energy works.”

“Arizona has the resources to keep on flourishing, but the atmosphere of the solar debate has not been conducive to growth,” Ronen said.

Despite that, the report predicts booming growth for the industry in 2014, with firms surveyed for the census predicting that they would add more than 22,000 workers in the year, a growth rate of 15.6 percent.

Arizona businesses, too, predicted they would bounce back in 2014 but at a more modest rate of 5.6 percent, which would translate to about 475 new industry jobs in the state.

Most of the jobs in Arizona, 3,311, were in installation of solar in 2013, according to the census, with the rest divided between manufacturing, project development, and sales and distribution.

That was mirrored on the national level, where just under half the jobs were in installation, followed by manufacturing with about 20 percent, sales and distribution with a little less than 14 percent, and project development accounting for 8.5 percent.

When asked what the future held for Arizona compared to other states, Lueke still said there was room for growth but that it could still be stunted.

“You can’t make smart decisions when you are not sure what the future holds,” she said.

Solar rising

Arizona lost jobs in the solar-energy industry in 2013, but businesses in the state predicted that would turn around and jobs would increase in almost all categories in 2014. The number of jobs in 2013 and the level projected for 2014 were:

- Installation: 3,311 in 2013; 3,465 in 2014

- Manufacturing: 1,465; 1,172

- Sales and distribution: 1,472; 1,705

- Project development: 1,874; 2,152

- Other: 436; 540

- Total: 8,558; 9,033

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