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Solar jobs starting to decline in California, after years of growth

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's solar power industry, a source of steady job growth since the depths of the great recession, has started to shrink.

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David R. Baker
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's solar power industry, a source of steady job growth since the depths of the great recession, has started to shrink.

The number of solar jobs in the state fell more than 13 percent in 2017, an annual survey released Wednesday found, as issues ranging from regulatory changes to a long, wet winter stunted sales.

``It was a tough year, with all of these things combined,'' said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association lobbying group. ``Each one of them, individually, is not the end of the world. It's the aggregate hitting us all at once.''

And 2018 could bring new challenges. President Trump decided last month to impose tariffs on the cheap, imported solar panels that have helped fuel the industry's growth, likely raising costs for consumers.

California, in many ways, still dominates the industry. The survey from the Solar Foundation research group counted 86,414 solar jobs in California, far more than in any other state and 34.5 percent of the nationwide total.

So many solar arrays have been installed in California -- from suburban rooftops to massive rows of panels feeding the grid -- that together, they can generate more than 20 gigawatts of electricity at full production, roughly the same as 20 nuclear reactors.

And yet, after years of reliable growth, the industry's short-term prospects are clouded.

New residential solar installations within the state fell an estimated 19 percent in 2017, according to preliminary data from GTM research. The reasons illustrate just how complex the solar market can be.

First, last winter lingered longer and dropped more rain than usual. Although it ended five years of drought, the cloudy and damp weather depressed solar sales.

``It's great for lots of things, but it's not necessarily easy to sell and install solar when it's raining, and that's going to affect the residential market a lot,'' said Ed Gilliland, senior director of the Solar Foundation.

At the same time, California is moving from its old system for compensating solar homeowners who export their excess electricity to the grid, a system called net metering. The new version is less generous than the old and requires shifting to ``time of use'' electricity rates from their utility company, rates that charge customers different prices for electricity based on the time of day.

As a result, homeowners who buy solar arrays won't recoup their investment as quickly. Solar companies, both those that sell arrays outright as well as those that lease them to homeowners, have to redo their calculations and their sales pitches when talking to potential customers.

``I don't want to say it's difficult, but it is different,'' said Alex McDonough, senior vice president of policy at Sunrun, based in San Francisco. ``And we have to adjust how we sell it. We have to adjust our own internal math.''

In addition, some of the downturn may be tied to the business decisions of one particular company -- Tesla.

The electric automaker acquired SolarCity, one of America's largest solar companies, in 2016. Last year, Tesla decided to scale back some of its more expensive methods of acquiring new customers, ending door-to-door sales. That led to a drop in installations, which in the third quarter of 2017 fell 42 percent for Tesla nationwide compared with the same quarter of 2016.

``SolarCity saw tremendous growth from 2013 to 2016 -- they pursued volume and market share at the expense of profitability,'' said Austin Perea, a solar market analyst with GTM Research. ``A lot of their customer acquisition methods turned out to be really costly.''

``We do expect the solar demand to rebound as we move solar sales into all of our stores, which is a much more efficient channel for demand generation,'' Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in November on a call with analysts. Tesla on Monday said it would start selling solar panels and batteries in 800 Home Depot stores.

The market for businesses wanting to go solar, meanwhile, faced its own uncertainty.

California regulators spent much of the year debating whether to shift the hours that are considered peak usage periods for commercial customers on time-of-use rates. That meant businesses, schools or government agencies that wanted to put solar arrays on their buildings didn't know exactly how to calculate their payback periods. The issue still isn't entirely resolved.

``We couldn't sit across the corporate board room and tell them how it would pencil out,'' Del Chiaro said. ``Everybody in the nonresidential rate was stuck in this limbo.''

Executives say they expect the industry to continue working its way through these changes in 2018.

``We see this year as a year of restructuring in the industry and not a lot of growth,'' said Suvi Sharma, president and CEO of Fremont's Solaria, which makes high-efficiency solar panels.

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