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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Clean tech hiring shows a slowdown

Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File

The Solar Foundation recently reported its first nationwide decline in jobs since the group first started keeping tabs in 2010. Above: Solar panels covered a barn roof in Berlin.

By Globe Staff 

The state’s clean tech industry has long enjoyed its pole position as a major driver of job growth. But it might have just hit a speed bump.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center chose to focus on net growth in its report this week: 1,500-plus new clean energy jobs, bringing the state’s total to 110,700. At first glance, the growth number sounds impressive. Good news for the environment and for the economy.

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But consider this: It represents just a 1.4 percent increase, year over year, slightly trailing the statewide average for all employment sectors. In comparison, clean energy employment in Massachusetts grew 4 percent in 2017, 6 percent in 2016, and by double-digits in previous years.

A primary culprit for the slowdown? The solar industry. Yes, the Solar Foundation recently reported its first nationwide decline in jobs since the group first started keeping tabs in 2010. So Massachusetts, the second-biggest solar employer after California, isn’t alone. But the foundation’s recent census showed this state as one of the biggest job losers in the solar world.

A number of factors are at play. A cap on net metering credits, which reimburse panel owners for the power they don’t use on site, had been reached again in National Grid’s territory, and the Legislature opted not to lift the caps again. That made some commercial developments uneconomical. Then there was the long wait for the Baker administration’s rollout of a new solar subsidy program, nicknamed SMART.

Big national players including SolarCity and Vivint pared back their local work. New solar projects on household rooftops declined, as the sector shifted toward bigger projects. That kind of efficiency usually means fewer workers per megawatt.

Stephen Pike, CEO of the quasi-public clean energy center, remains bullish about the clean energy industry’s broader prospects. He notes the overall tight labor market curtailed hiring. Pike knows of one solar installer boss who went to a county jail to recruit employees.

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Pike sees two big avenues for growth on the horizon: wind and cars. Most notably, Vineyard Wind is preparing to build the country’s first major offshore wind farm, south of Martha’s Vineyard. Assuming the development team gets its permits, construction should start in roughly a year. Others are coming. Just witness the steep prices European energy companies — including Vineyard Wind’s backers — agreed to pay last week for the rights to federal waters a little further offshore.

Those projects could employ thousands of construction workers. Relatively new policies in Massachusetts and other Northeast states are prompting utilities to sign long-term contracts with developers, in part to help the states meet aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Another boom could come from efforts to electrify the transportation sector. Officials in several East Coast states are crafting a strategy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on our roads, similar to an existing cap-and-trade program for power plants. They just gave themselves a year to come up with a workable plan. Meanwhile, the Conservation Law Foundation is eyeing potential legislation that would build on its initiative to electrify the ground fleet at Logan Airport, to capture a much broader universe of vehicles. Pike says new jobs could come from charging station work, for example, or even at auto dealerships that sell electric cars alongside conventional ones.

Of course, clean tech is maturing: As its expansion continues, simple math makes it harder to keep hitting the same sized increases on a percentage basis. Pike and his team choose to celebrate that success, while planning for another pickup in momentum that they hope is right around the corner.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.