In the Illinois solar industry, the new faces often outnumber the familiar ones.
Take StraightUp Solar, where more than half of the 67 employees have been hired since the beginning of 2018 as the company has grown to meet surging demand tied to a new state energy law.
They come from community colleges, construction and other building trades, eager to be part of a growing industry, said Shannon Fulton, vice president of development for the company, which has offices in Bloomington, Illinois, and St. Louis. "The job creation aspect is really tremendous."
Illinois stands out in the 2018 edition of the National Solar Jobs Census, with gains that were second only to Florida in a year when the country went in the opposite direction. Nationwide, the U.S. saw a decrease in solar jobs for the second year in a row, ending with just over 242,300 solar jobs, down 3.2 percent from the prior year.
The report, released Tuesday, shows broad gains across the Midwest in a sign of a shift in the map of the clean energy economy, brought on by price decreases that make solar a cost-effective option even in places nobody would describe as sun-baked. California and a few other states with established solar markets shouldered most of the job losses amid the uncertainty of the Trump administration's tariffs on solar panel imports.
Total solar jobs fell by about 8,000 nationwide in 2018. The new tariffs were a leading factor in the decline, although they were not as damaging as industry officials initially feared, said Ed Gilliland, senior director of the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit that does research and advocacy in support of the solar industry. The effects of the tariffs were also partially canceled out by falling market prices for solar equipment.
Jobs were down across the major solar industry categories. Installation and project management, the category that accounts for about two out of three jobs in the industry, fell 6.1 percent.
The Trump administration had argued that the tariffs would boost U.S. solar manufacturing, but that category also had losses, with a decrease of 8.6 percent. There are signs that solar manufacturing is now growing, but most of the new panel-making capacity has not yet come online and little hiring has yet happened, the Solar Foundation said.
California, the country's solar leader, bore the brunt of the job losses, with jobs down 9,576 or 11 percent. Much of this was due to projects being pushed back because of uncertainty related to tariffs. Another factor was that several of the state's utilities are ahead of schedule in meeting annual targets for adding renewable power, so they slowed down on new projects.
But California is also poised to rebound in a big way, with delayed projects expected to break ground this year, and a new building code taking effect in 2020 that requires new housing to have solar.
The two years of nationwide job losses follow what had been a steady upward trend since the report began in 2010. The job losses also mirror a decrease in the amount of new solar generating capacity through the first three quarters of 2018.
The companies surveyed for the report said they expect growth to pick up this year. Solar Foundation estimated a 7 percent increase in jobs based on the results, though it stressed that that should not be considered a forecast for the industry.
Illinois' New Energy Law Brings in Jobs
Illinois' solar growth is tied to the Future Energy Jobs Act, a 2016 law that requires the state to increase its use of renewable energy and includes a number of programs to make that happen. The solar jobs have followed, with an increase of 1,308 last year, up 37 percent from the prior year.
New solar projects are leading to a hiring boom because the state had almost no solar industry before this, with less than 100 megawatts installed at the beginning of last year.
"Having been involved with the solar industry since 2011, and having to essentially create our own market for so many years, it's really exciting to see all this high expectation for new solar development," said Fulton of StraightUp Solar.
Solar jobs are growing across the Midwest, with the exceptions of South Dakota and Nebraska. The growth is happening in large part because solar projects have become more financially attractive in places that are less sunny than the South and West. Panels are getting less expensive and more efficient, which makes solar arrays cost-competitive with other electricity sources.
Illinois' solar growth might also be nudging its neighbors, as other states see the economic growth there and as solar companies come to the region and look for business in nearby states, Gilliland said.
How Florida Jumped to No. 2 in Solar Jobs
Even though it has lots of sun, Florida had not been hospitable to the solar industry until recently, leaving lots of untapped demand that is now beginning to be met. The state gained 1,769 jobs, or 21 percent, which was enough to surpass Massachusetts to become the country's No. 2 solar employer behind California.
The increase in Florida in largely because of changes in utility policy. State regulators are now allowing leasing for rooftop solar arrays, which unlocks pent-up demand from customers who wanted solar but could not afford the up-front costs of buying the systems.
The change in policy, and a growing acceptance of rooftop solar by utilities, are likely to lead to prolonged growth there, said Andrea Luecke, Solar Foundation president and executive director.
"Finally, I think Florida is headed in the right direction," she said.