U.S. federal and state governments have set clean energy goals to curb carbon production and produce electricity from renewable sources like photovoltaic solar. The deadlines are years away, but in the interim, solar installation companies, industry organizations and governmental bodies are determining how to quickly scale the job growth needed to reach these milestones.
Solar workforce requirements are both intensified and supported by the Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA will provide tax credits for solar projects above a certain megawatt size that pay installers prevailing wages and employ a required number of people enrolled in apprenticeship programs. However, in its current state, the IRA does not include any direct funding for job training or apprenticeship programs.
“One of the disappointments of the IRA was that in the final version that was enacted, a lot of the resources directly for workforce development and job training were no longer in there that had been in the Build Back Better Act,” said Andie Wyatt, policy director and legal counsel for GRID Alternatives. “So that leaves nonprofits like GRID and other sectors to fill in and make sure that we actually have the workforce to do the enormous buildout of renewable energy that the Inflation Reduction Act otherwise promises.”
Commercial arrays that employ four or more people must meet apprenticeship requirements to be eligible for the full 30% investment tax credit. Additionally, those laborers must be paid a prevailing wage based on “rates for construction, alteration or repair of a similar character” within a region, according to the IRA.
The bill text says for projects started before January 1, 2023, 10% of a project’s labor hours must be performed by apprentices — but the caveat is that these requirements take effect for projects that begin construction 60 days after the Dept. of Treasury defines the metrics, which hasn’t yet happened at time of publication. That percentage grows to 12.5% starting in 2023 and 15% in 2024. Commercial projects smaller than 1 MWAC are not required to meet these qualifications to be eligible for the ITC, and there are no labor requirements for tax incentives in the residential market.
Once Treasury guidance is released, companies will need to follow the new prevailing wage and apprenticeship rules to avoid missing out on the majority of incentives. And they shouldn’t try and cheat the system, either. The IRA includes monetary penalties to discourage contractors from falsifying apprenticeship enrollment and prevailing wage payment. How this process will be handled is still unclear until the Dept. of the Treasury issues guidance.
Finding the workers
Solar-specific apprenticeships are rare at the moment. Apprenticeship programs must meet certain criteria of the U.S. Dept. of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency, but very few have gone through that effort so far.
“Apprenticeships are formally approved programs,” Wyatt said. “There is not really one for solar installation right now. GRID is involved in helping develop that, but as of right now, apprenticeships tend to fall into other categories like electrician or different parts of labor.”
One of the few examples is Florida’s solar energy technician apprenticeship created by the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association and the University of Central Florida’s FSEC Energy Research Center. It’s still in the early stages and can only accept a limited number of apprentices to start.
“This is a complicated issue,” Wyatt said. “Apprenticeships are generally multi-year, big commitment processes where once you’re really sure that industry is for you, it’s a job.”
While industry organizations like GRID are working with collaborators to lay the solar apprenticeship groundwork in the United States, the Dept. of Labor is taking steps to help too. It recently named renewable energy developer RES an “Apprenticeship Ambassador” for the U.S. renewable energy industry and is expected to nominate other companies for the role too. These ambassadors will help the government develop best practices for renewable energy apprenticeships and expand access to these programs for underrepresented individuals.
The IRA does not include specific low-income workforce training initiatives in the text, but solar nonprofits like GRID and SEIA, along with the Dept. of Labor and Dept. of Energy have made it clear that equal opportunity is a priority for the buildout.
“Honestly, we’re not going to be successful in reaching our goals if we don’t have a diverse workforce,” said Erika Symmonds, VP of equity and workforce development at SEIA. “We are serving more communities, and we are going to have to have a workforce to reflect those communities. Just to meet the numbers, it’s going to require that we set up companies and opportunities that are equitable and create inclusive environments within our workforce. I think it’s a huge opportunity for people who might not have been exposed yet to the opportunities of clean energy to get in and play a key role in meeting these goals.”
Last year, SEIA released an industry roadmap that envisions 30% of the electricity generated in the United States coming from solar by 2030. SEIA estimates that ambition would require the total number of people employed in the solar industry to grow to 1 million. According to Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s National Solar Jobs Census, the U.S. solar industry employed a total of 255,037 people in 2021. It will be no small feat to get to 1 million, but industry leaders are working behind the scenes to pave the way for a booming solar jobs market.
“There’s going to be a great demand for the jobs that are being created, so there also needs to be something complementary in the workforce development space to prepare individuals from local communities to be able to fill these jobs,” said Adewale OgunBadejo, VP of workforce development at GRID Alternatives.
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