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Solar jobs barely cause a ripple in the Buffalo Niagara employment market

Despite the state's $750 million investment in the Tesla Inc. solar panel factory, the solar energy industry barely causes a ripple in the Buffalo Niagara job market, a new report found.

The Buffalo Niagara region had 551 jobs tied to the solar energy industry during 2017, according to a new report on solar employment by the Solar Foundation. That amounts to one job for every 1,000 other jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region.

The 551 jobs were up 8 percent, or 42 jobs, from 509 in 2016 and 50 percent more than the 366 solar jobs the region had in 2015, the report said.

But the solar industry job count also shows that the Buffalo Niagara region still has a long way to go to create a critical mass of employment in one of the key parts of the nation's renewable energy market.

Eventually, state officials are hoping that the Tesla solar panel factory will generate nearly 3,000 solar energy jobs by itself, with roughly half coming from the South Park Avenue factory and half coming from its suppliers and service providers. But production at the factory only began last summer, with Tesla's partner, Panasonic, starting to make solar panels. Tesla itself has not yet started production of what it expects to be its main product from the Buffalo factory - solar roofing panels that look like a conventional roof but have solar cells inside.

Beyond that, the Buffalo Niagara region is a relatively small market for solar energy installations, which accounts for more than three-quarters of all solar industry jobs nationwide.

Only 1,663 homes across Erie and Niagara counties have installed solar panels since 2000, according to data compiled by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

 

In all, the Buffalo Niagara region has about 2,000 solar energy projects, including commercial and industrial installations, with a capacity to generate 35 megawatts of electricity. That's equal to 3 percent of all solar generating capacity statewide, according to the state energy agency's data.

Much of the solar industry's activity has been focused in states like California and in areas like Long Island, where electricity prices are much higher than they are in the Buffalo Niagara region. Higher electricity prices make it easier for solar power projects to make economic sense.

The jobs report is based on a survey of solar energy businesses that was conducted in October and November of last year, as Tesla's partner, Panasonic, was stepping up its hiring.

While the Tesla solar panel factory was slowly ramping up employment, finishing the year with about 300 workers, the rest of the solar energy industry faced headwinds from a slowdown in solar energy installations, partly caused by uncertainty over the fate of a key federal tax credit in 2016 that led to a surge in activity by customers who moved up projects rather than risk a reduction or the elimination of the tax credit. Residential installations across the Buffalo Niagara region, for instance, tumbled by 40 percent last year, according to NYSERDA.

Nationwide, employment in the solar industry fell by nearly 4 percent last year to 250,271 jobs, the Solar Foundation reported. That was about 9,800 fewer jobs than the industry had in 2016 and marked the first annual decline since 2010.

"After six years of rapid and steady growth, the solar industry faced headwinds that led to a dip in employment in 2017, including a slowdown in the pace of new solar installations, said  Andrea Luecke, the Solar Foundation's president and executive director.

The jobs report is based on a survey of solar energy businesses that was conducted in October and November of last year, as Tesla's partner, Panasonic, was stepping up its hiring.

A little more than half of the solar industry's jobs nationwide are involved in installing solar energy systems. Nearly 15 percent are in manufacturing and a little more than 14 percent are in project development.

The solar energy industry has increased employment by 168 percent over the past seven years.

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