By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Rhode Island’s so-called “green-energy” industry is slowing down. Jobs grew 3.6 percent in 2017, after an increase of 11 percent in 2016 and 40 percent in 2015. The slowdown is likely to continue.
The 561-job increase casts doubt on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s goal of achieving 20,000 “clean-tech” jobs by 2020. As of the end of 2017, the sector had 15,866 jobs in green transportation, renewable energy, renewable heating and cooling, and energy efficiency.
The Rhode Island Clean Energy Industry Report 2018 emphasizes the 72 percent job increase in the sector since 2014 and touts prospects for future growth in areas such as offshore wind. But the analysis says the state shed 91 renewable-energy jobs last year. Five jobs in green transportation were lost. Heating and cooling added 301 jobs. Energy efficiency, the largest subgroup, added 356 jobs.
The report, published jointly by the Office of Energy Resources and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, blames the decline in renewable-energy jobs on a national drop in solar-energy jobs. They site a report by The Solar Foundation that assigns the decline to a combination of a hangover from a huge solar installation buildout in 2016 to concerns over import tariffs on solar panels and equipment that took effect in January.
The Trump administration’s 30 percent tariff on imported solar equipment is expected to have even a larger impact on the solar industry this year.
The recent Rhode Island report refers to a $500 to $1,000 cost increase in residential solar installations and even more for commercial projects. The 23-page report also blames cap limits on the popular Renewable Energy Growth (REG), a fixed-price electricity-purchase program. The REG program reached its 6.55-megawatt annual cap in October 2017. It reached its 2018 cap in July, and legislative efforts to increase the cap died in the General Assembly in June.
Rhode Island lost 131 solar jobs in 2017, its first loss in solar jobs since 2014. Twenty-eight percent of solar companies temporarily or permanently laid off staff in the final quarter of 2017. Many employers also reported declines in revenue or “revenue uncertainty.”
Many leading solar-energy states saw big drops in jobs in 2017, Massachusetts lost 3,053 solar jobs, a 21 percent decline in the sector. California lost 13,363 jobs. However, some states gained solar jobs. New York added 877 jobs, an 11 percent gain. Connecticut was unchanged.
Rhode Island still considers solar a driver in job growth, with 590 megawatts of new solar capacity anticipated in the next five years. The report points to new efforts such as statewide, uniform solar permitting and a payment program for commercial installations, known as Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (CPACE), run by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank.
Types of jobs
Heating and cooling employees work on high-efficacy heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC). There are 287 jobs dedicated to non-woody biomass energy such as landfill gas, anaerobic digesters, and gas power generated at sewage treatment facilities. Twelve jobs are dedicated to woody biomass.
Employees don’t spend all of their time in these green-energy sectors. For example, 57 percent of workers in the energy-efficiency sector spent the majority of their time on renewable-energy activities. Workers in both the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency sectors spent less time on their green energy work in 2017 than they did in 2016, according to the report.
This year’s report also identifies new subsections of jobs, such as 128 jobs in energy storage, 434 jobs on microgrids, and 1,247 jobs on Energy Star appliances.
Growth is expected from several areas: residential energy efficiency, new electric vehicle charging stations, and upgrades to the electricity grid — a process called grid modernization that is being developed by the state Public Utilities Commission.
Renewable-energy jobs are also expected to be buoyed by the continuation of the 30 percent solar tax credit through 2021.
One of the bright spots of the report was an increase of 280 jobs in engineering, research, and professional services, which may be attributed to the expansion of the offshore wind industry. Rhode Island gained 40 jobs in the wind-energy sector in 2017.
The report touts the recently announced 50-turbine Revolution Wind project as a job creator, along with other offshore projects between Massachusetts and New York that may grow wind-industry centers at ports in Providence and Quonset.
“With continued commitment to renewing and adding policy measures in support of the clean energy industry, the state will be well-poised to achieve 20,000 clean energy jobs by 2020,” according to the report.
Facts and figures
The Rhode Island's workforce grew by less than 1 percent in 2017, compared to the 3.6 percent growth of the green-energy sector.
The green-energy sector makes up 3.3 percent of Rhode Island's total labor force.
Forty wind-energy jobs were added in 2017.
Ninety-five percent of the state's wind-energy potential power is offshore.
A total of 95.03 megawatts of solar power is generated by 4,619 solar installations across the state.
One percent of the state’s electricity is derived from solar energy.