Solar jobs in illinois increased 7 percent in 2016 and the outlook for 2017 predicts more growth. (John Konstanteras / Chicago Tribune)
The skies are clearing a bit for Illinois’ solar industry, according to a new report, despite a stormy forecast out of the nation’s capital.
The number of solar jobs in the state increased to 3,718 workers in 2016, up 6.7 percent from the year before, according to a report released this week by the nonprofit Solar Foundation. That ranks Illinois No. 17 in the country for solar jobs, and employment numbers are expected to grow 5 percent in 2017.
But the clouds haven’t completely dissipated. Though jobs are up, other states have overtaken Illinois, which held the No. 14 spot in 2015. Optimism is stronger nationally, where solar jobs increased 25 percent in 2016 to 260,077 workers. That’s expected to increase 10 percent this year.
The report was released just hours before President Donald Trump signed an executive order to start reversing the Clean Power Plan. The policy, at the heart of former President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat climate change, would have required utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, increasing reliance on renewable energy sources like solar power.
But the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act, passed in December and set to take effect in June, brought some certainty to the future of solar in the state. With promised investments from Illinois’ new law, many industry operators are bullish on the year ahead, looking to add jobs and catch up on projects that have been tabled in the past.
Wind and solar energy company Windfree Solar hired three staff members this week, President Doug Snower said.
The Chicago company, which installs solar panels on homes, small businesses, churches and schools, downsized to about six full-time employees for the slower winter months and is staffing up for spring, when installations ramp up. Now with nine employees, Snower plans to hire two or three more next month.
"The phones are ringing," he said. "We just don’t have enough salespeople to handle all the stuff coming in."
The massive state law, passed in part to help subsidize two of Exelon’s financially struggling downstate nuclear power plants, included provisions that could bolster solar. Among them: efforts to boost participation in community solar projects, a program that provides funding for solar in low-income areas, and a job training program.
"That’s really the biggest signal that people think this is a market worth investing in," said Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Foundation. "When you start putting resources into your workforce, it’s a strong signal to solar companies that this is a place to go."
The report did not take into account how policies affected job numbers, Luecke said. She noted that data were gathered at the end of 2016, when the Illinois bill was working its way through the legislature and rhetoric out of Washington was not favorable for the industry.
The report defines solar workers as employees who spend at least 50 percent of their time on solar. This is the seventh year the foundation has released the report but the first year the U.S. Department of Energy paid for it.
Illinois’ solar industry likely will see more robust growth in 2018, when most of the programs outlined in the new law launch, said Anthony Star, director of the Illinois Power Agency.
The agency is revamping the way renewable energy credits are handled in the state. A tracking system creates one credit for each megawatt-hour of energy a wind or solar project produces. Utilities then buy the credits through a program run by the agency, providing an additional revenue stream for the project.
Previously, solar projects bid to sell the credits, and the market determined the cost. Under the new law, the power agency will propose set prices for the credits, which means more price certainty for the industry.
Additionally, solar has become more mainstream. Technological advances have brought costs down, and the industry is breaking out of its nascent stages.
"We don’t have to sell the sun as much," said Brandon Leavitt, president of Solar Service, a Niles-based solar installation company.
Illinois’ budget crisis previously sent a wave of uncertainty over the state’s solar program, Leavitt said, and put Solar Service in a holding pattern for a couple of years. The company has grown its employee base, but only slightly — it employs 14 people, three of whom have joined since 2015.
The investment promised in the Future Energy Jobs Act brings enough certainty to increase hiring, Leavitt said. He plans to hire two more people in the next month and more by the end of the year.
"We’ve been surviving," he said, "but now we’re on the verge of thriving."