Purposeful, Proactive Growth: Navigating Long-Term Challenges in the Solar and Storage Industry
Wednesday, Sep 13 2023
America’s solar and storage industry is — by any metric — booming. While this growth has been quick, it has not been haphazard.
This expansion is underpinned by the industry’s steadfast commitment to purposeful, proactive growth.
Three years into the Solar+ Decade, the solar and storage industry has achieved unprecedented momentum resulting from the Inflation Reduction Act, with more than $20 billion invested in domestic manufacturing.
But in order for solar and storage to comprise 30% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030, the industry must proactively address the economic, political, and environmental challenges that lie ahead.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is helping to chart this path forward and create solutions that will build on our progress and rocket us to our 2030 goals.
Expanding the Workforce
To meet these ambitious goals, the solar workforce must grow from 263,000 Americans today to over one million workers by the end of the decade. To do this, the industry must focus our efforts on equitably hiring, training and retaining the next generation of workers.
According to the National Solar Jobs Census, America’s solar workforce is already attracting younger workers and outpaces the rest of the economy when it comes to hiring Gen Z workers. While the United States still has a long way to go, it’s clear that workers see the solar and storage sector as a stable source of good, family-supporting careers.
We must also focus on retaining these workers and creating clear pathways for promotion and other wealth building and business ownership opportunities.
The first step in delivering these opportunities is benchmarking our progress. For the first time in four years, the industry has launched a new workforce satisfaction survey to help identify opportunity and equity gaps to ensure everyone has access to a successful career in this industry. The results of the survey will serve as an important foundation as we strive to grow the solar workforce to four times its current size by the end of the decade.
Connecting to the Grid
To date, more than 2 terawatts of generation and storage are waiting for the greenlight to connect to the grid. This process, known as interconnection, is one of the biggest things holding back the clean energy transition.
In July 2023, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) took a big step forward by issuing Order No. 2023 which contains new rules that could significantly reduce interconnection delays if they’re implemented properly. The fixes could help interconnection customers make more informed decisions before entering the queue and help to promote accountability for utilities and transmission providers by setting firm study deadlines, creating enforceable requirements, and establishing penalties for failing to evaluate an interconnection application in a timely manner.
But these reforms are just the beginning.
To reduce interconnection delays across the country, we must focus on creating a clear, transparent, and efficient process for generators and transmission owners alike. Right now, the interconnection process for developers is largely a blind process and all parties involved need better information about grid conditions and capacity constraints. In addition, fairness and accountability must be at the heart of any reforms as monopoly utilities and transmission owners currently have no incentives to process applications in a timely manner.
And finally, these challenges aren’t happening in a vacuum. New innovations in artificial intelligence could help to speed study times without compromising the safety and reliability of the grid. In addition, recalculations of the withdrawal fee structure could go a long way in reforming the process.
Building a Circular Economy
Like many other durable products and construction materials, PV modules can be reused or refurbished for a ‘second life’ of generating electricity for many more years.
While the vast majority of America’s solar fleet will continue to operate for another 20-30 years in the field, recycling, refurbishing, and reusing solar energy systems are an essential part of building a sustainable economy.
Several SEIA members already operate take-back and recycling programs, and SEIA’s National PV Recycling Program is helping connect installers, developers, and distributors with a network of recycling and refurbishment organizations. This network is able to meet today’s recycling needs, and SEIA is focused on scaling its current recycling capacity to meet the long-term needs of the industry.
In addition, SEIA supports PV recycling research and programs that can help to introduce more innovation and market competition. This will help to scale new recycling technologies and lower costs as the solar industry builds a fully circular economy.
Raising the Standard
As an ANSI-certified standards-developing organization, SEIA is creating national standards that will help the solar and storage industry proactively address many of its long-term challenges.
The first standard SEIA is developing will focus on supply chains. The new traceability standard will help to ensure that the solar and storage industry ethically sources products and components. As the industry rapidly expands its domestic manufacturing capacity, strong standards will be a key tool in helping companies across the industry align their supply chains with their sustainability goals.
If we reach our 2030 goals, more than 20 million homes will have solar energy. Millions of Americans will be considering solar for the first time over the next few years, making this a crucial time to invest in consumer education resources and national standards that will ensure the safe and reliable installation of all solar and energy storage systems.
With more eyes on the solar and storage industry than ever before, collaborative, forward-looking industry standards will be crucial to both maintaining the industry’s momentum today and fortifying its foundation for the future.
From workforce development to PV recycling and interconnection to consumer protection, the solar and storage industry has always been proactive and intentional in its growth. The industry holds itself to a high standard and, as we strive to meet the goal of providing 30% of electricity generation by 2030, we must continue to address industry-wide challenges purposefully and strategically.
If we tackle these long-term challenges, we’ll make good on our promise to deliver an affordable, abundant, and homegrown clean energy future.