Solar industry struggles to keep employees working amid COVID-19

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson
For business

(May 29, 2020)

Are solar rooftops practical for Texas homes?

Goods and commerce remain at a slow crawl under Covid-19 restrictions, putting some of the nation’s strongest players in solar industry on hold for now, and possibly well into the foreseeable future.

A staggering amount of stimulus dollars are expected to come down the pipeline soon, and proponents of the solar industry are closely watching for what can be done to help 250,000 employees that had projects in progress which are no longer moving. Instead, many are seeking unemployment resources and business loans.

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) CEO Abigail Ross Hopper has stressed that SEIA is committed to working on policy proposals through this pandemic that can assist its workers and businesses now dealing with massive losses.

For SEIA members, about half of solar industry jobs are estimated to be lost through the pandemic. Some 125,000 families who will no longer receive a paycheck.

Ross Hopper is concerned about getting provisions for employee retention and protections in place. She emphasized that the priority is making sure their members understand how to access unemployment benefits and resources.

A recent SEIA survey found that solar companies, among the hardest hit businesses, face a 19 percent project cancellation rate and a 53 percent job postponement rate for residential solar systems. Companies report that work has stopped with sales lost for six months to a year out. They also report 90 to 130-day delays for products. For some companies, financing is on hold, and more than 63 percent of respondents are concerned they will not be able to access tax equity.

“All of these data points tell us a clear story: the solar industry needs policies to protect and support workers as a result of this awful virus. Nothing less than the future of our clean energy economy is at stake,” Ross Hopper stated.

“We are working with Congress to find solutions to this health and economic crisis and we will keep you posted on our findings as we fight through this difficult time in America’s history.”

Through the crisis, many agencies and utility programs are reaching out to get essential services to impacted individuals.

Utility recommends solar opportunities during COVID-19

CPS Energy, a municipally-owned utility, announced that they are prepared to help those in need at the local level to suspend disconnections at this time. The utility is calling on consumers to contact them to work out a payment plan if they are dealing with a financial hardship.

Seamus Nelson, CPS spokesperson, notes that they also have several ways for consumers to save money on their energy bills for the future. For those that don’t own solar panels, but still want to contribute to clean energy, CPS community solar programs are helping low-income residents, homeowners, and those who otherwise would not be able to access solar panels.

When the community solar program first started, Nelson said customers were invited to buy as little as one CPS solar panel and get energy credits for what that panel produced. They could purchase as many as needed to offset their electric bills.

Even though they don’t actually own the panels, residents living in apartments can participate in the program and receive the credit. Through the CPS credit and the community solar program, they offer 5 MW with a unique approach. Rather than placing the panels at solar farms, Nelson said their local program sets up on carports at businesses.

“One of the things that caught our eye about the program is that it’s a great idea,” Nelson said. “If you’re living in an apartment or even an older home where it’s not a great candidate for mounting solar panels, this is a good way to still get the benefits of solar without replacing your roof first.”

The carport is the first one of its kind for CPS, and is now getting off the ground. It’s one innovative way to get clean green energy to all who want it.

“It’s active right now,” said Nelson. “It’s a 5 MW project. Once all the panels are sold, the project is sold out. But I know they’re not all sold yet.”

Solar United Neighbors offers a fresh take on clean energy solutions

Solar United Neighbors has one project on track to take an eyesore and turn it into a great use of clean energy. Once completed, it will provide clean energy from a solar array on top of a landfill.

Still in the planning stages, that project is expected to start in 2021 and represents a fresh idea to create clean energy from a brownfield. It will be located in Sunnyside in the Houston metropolitan area.

Dori Wolfe, the founder of Wolfe Energy, explains that the project will offer discount renewable power for low-income folks of Sunnyside and create more renewable energy jobs in the area.

“Should we be able to successfully turn this opportunity into a reality, the aspect I am most excited about is the community-owned solar array. Solar energy by the community, for the community, where folks get a chance to buy in, become a subscriber, and own a piece of the sun,” Wolfe said.

The project is partnering with South Union CDC Community Solar to educate the community on the investment. After the solar array is built, residents will be allowed to buy into it in both shares and kilowatts.

South Union CDC President Efrem B. Jernigan said the landfill comprises 240 acres with a solar farm, community solar, and an agricultural hub as the three project components. It will take three years to complete.

The agricultural hub will add value to the community in the form our aquaponics, which combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (raising plants).

“The Sunnyside Energy project will bring a ray of sunshine to the Sunnyside community that has been darkened by crime and poverty. Now a present food desert is about to be transformed into a food haven that produces hope,” Jernigan said.

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.

Image/Shutterstock