by Robert Digitale, Press Democrat
Sonoma County shared in the U.S. solar industry’s boom times last year, with strong job growth reported here, a jump partly attributed to increased customer demand and a rush to take advantage of federal tax credits.
The county ranked 13th for 2016 among the nation’s metropolitan areas based on the number of solar-related jobs, according to a new report by the Solar Foundation of Washington, D.C. Employment in the county’s solar sector grew 44 percent from a year earlier to 3,476 jobs.
Some Northern California communities enjoyed even bigger growth rates.
The San Francisco/Oakland area, the top-ranked metro area in the United States for solar jobs, reported a total of 26,000 such workers last year, an increase of 67 percent from 2015.
Sacramento, which ranked sixth, saw its solar jobs grow 99 percent, while San Luis Obispo, ranked 15th, had an increase of 137 percent.
In contrast, the nation’s solar workforce grew by 25 percent last year. That compares with an annual growth rate of about 20 percent for the previous three years.
“California is obviously the leading market in terms of solar in the U.S.,” said Andrea Luecke, the foundation’s president and executive director.
Santa Rosa has distinguished itself for encouraging solar by becoming one of only 21 communities in the nation to receive the top-ranked SolSmart Gold designation, Luecke noted. The recognition is part of a U.S. Department of Energy program that is administered by the Solar Foundation.
“The city of Santa Rosa is taking all the right steps in becoming more solar friendly,” she said.
The foundation’s annual census counts solar employment in such areas as installation, manufacturing, sales and distribution. To be counted, a worker must devote at least half of his or her time on solar-related work.
The nation’s solar industry enjoyed its biggest year ever in 2016. Its new installations equaled 14.76 gigawatts of power, which was nearly double of that completed in 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
A gigawatt provides enough electricity to power about 200,000 homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The largest share of installations last year involved “utility-scale” projects that were started in anticipation of capturing a federal tax credit that had been slated to expire at the end of last year, the association reported. In late 2015, Congress did extend the credit, but by that time many of those projects were well underway.
After last year’s big bump, utility projects are expected to decline this year, thus lowering the nation’s total of new solar power for 2017. However, the association still expects growth in the residential and commercial solar sectors.
As for employment, the Solar Foundation forecast that the nation’s solar workforce this year will grow another 10 percent to a total of 286,000 workers.
For the county, the solar jobs amount to 1.7 percent of the total workforce, but few sectors experience 44 percent job growth in one year.
For example, the county’s total construction industry amounts to 4.7 percent of the workforce and grew 9 percent in one year to 13,200 workers by November 2016, the time of the solar census.
Geoffrey Smith, who runs the Solar Sonoma County program for The Climate Center in Santa Rosa, said the growing numbers show how important solar is to the county.
“It’s a significant part of the local economy,” he said.
He noted the county’s solar sector includes not only installers and distributors but also companies like Petaluma’s Enphase Energy, which produces components and other technology to better manage residential and commercial systems.
Nate Gulbransen, a partner in Westcoast Solar Energy in Rohnert Park, recalled that jobs were scarce about five years ago as the county was still dealing with the aftermath of the recession, and both homeowners and businesses showed less interest in adding systems. That resulted in many solar installers going out of business.
But work was plentiful last year. He said 2016 “was a banner year for the industry.”
Among Westcoast’s current projects is a 2.15 megawatt installation at Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma.
Lagunitas said the solar system will be the fifth-largest in the world among breweries.
John Parry, the owner of Solar Works in Sebastopol, said there really are two solar industries. One involves locally based contractors who build sustainable and profitable businesses, while the other includes big players who try to capitalize on the tax credits but never seem to stick around.
“They come and go,” Parry said.
Among the latter are companies such as Oakland-based Sungevity, which this month filed for bankruptcy protection and which Greentech Media said had previously raised $850 million in venture capital.
Parry started his company in 1986. Today, he has 11 workers. His wife, Laura Goldman, and he said their approach of not chasing the “growth path” has allowed them to stay in business for three decades.
“We’re kind of grandparents of solar around here,” Laura Goldman said.
Luecke acknowledged the frequent ups and downs of major players has spawned the term “solar coaster.” But she said the industry’s technology has demonstrated that power from the sun “is the future.”
“Solar has a larger part to play in a carbon-free economy, and that’s really what we need to do,” she said.
Solar rooftop panels increasingly will be combined with energy storage systems.
It also will be relied upon to power electric vehicles and devices that now use natural gas, such as heating systems, said Smith of Solar Sonoma County. Such changes will mean bright opportunities for the county’s solar companies.
“Our local solar vendors are a scrappy bunch,” Smith said, “and they’re able to adapt.”
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.