Solar Coronavirus
April 18, 2020

In January 2020 the solar industry was reviewing its 2019 production and installation figures and gearing up for an exciting year dominated by battery storage, electric vehicles, and the latest innovations. Shortly after the impeachment-infused holidays passed, we realized that nature had been busy rolling out an updated product of her own – ‘SARS 2.0’ or COVID-19. Right now, this virus has put as many as 50% of all solar industry jobs at risk. Meanwhile, a large percentage of those remaining are working from home. Our stalwart installation crews are out on the front lines in their personal protective equipment (PPE), and their engineering, project management, sales, marketing, permit, and office team members are working from home. Thankfully, holdout cities and counties are finally making progress toward a “touchless” online permit process that includes commercial and residential solar projects. Together, we are still in it to win it, and we will.

Life has changed and some hard lessons have been learned. In spite of our recent experiences with disasters linked to climate change such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and power shutoffs, we were not prepared for this pandemic. By “we” I mean everyone; our governments, military, medical establishment, scientific community, the construction industry, and the citizenry. We had plenty of warnings from previous virus pandemics, but we couldn’t imagine that another mega disaster was looming just over the horizon. In spite of the warnings, from December through February the band just played on. I think most Americans now understand that preparedness is not just a class we attend once a year when it is convenient. Preparedness is a state of mind, and one which will be tested more frequently in the years ahead. During this age of climate change even viruses are under extraordinary evolutionary pressures.

For many, this crisis has been unlike anything they have ever experienced. Sadly, the oldest members of our communities have seen, if not endured, circumstances like this before. Now, they are bearing the brunt of decades-long complacency and negligence. For solar veterans, the sudden and debilitating changes in expectations created by this coronavirus have been all too familiar, albeit this dip on the “solar coaster” beats all. Nevertheless, as we have seen from CALSSA’s relentless efforts to inform and guide us, the solar industry is not giving up, even if some must reluctantly close shop. I believe that COVID-19 has forced Americans from coast-to-coast to realize that it is in everyone’s best interests to cooperate, plan, and allocate resources to protect the health, safety, and commerce of our communities and the nation. Likewise, the solar industry will continue to adapt, innovate, and overcome challenges in order to help America achieve the resilient clean energy future we need to build in order to survive.

In 2019, as the coal industry continued to crumble, solar emerged as the biggest contributor in new energy generation capacity in America - an impressive 40% or 13.1 gigawatts. Where do we go from here? As it turns out, investment in the solar industry is still strong despite some hard knocks in the market. Moreover, that “point of no return” for electric vehicle adoption that many automobile and other manufacturers passed during the last couple of years won’t be rolled back by politics. Similarly, storage, resiliency, and microgrids are going to be part of our immediate future at work and at home.

Thankfully, many American solar manufacturers were able to keep producing well into March and some could reopen as early as May. In the interim, Chinese manufacturers such as Sungrow are already back to full solar panel production. In order to maintain output during the pandemic, Sungrow sent all their potentially affected workers home and retrained a brand new temporary workforce to carry on in their largely automated facilities. Other companies have managed to secure their supply lines so that they too can rejoin the revolution as soon as shelter-in-place orders begin to be gradually eased.

The pandemic has complicated every aspect of the solar industry. We are deeply concerned about the loss of jobs suffered by our co-workers, friends, and family members, whose numbers are now approaching twice what we experienced in 2009. At the moment, the solar investment tax credit will not be extended beyond what is already in place. Californians will continue to battle the utilities with bills like SB 953 authored by Sen. Scott Weiner, which is aimed at preventing fixed fees on solar, and/or storage owners. However, if the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision to enforce “price discrimination” is any indicator of where we are headed, then the fight over “demand charges” in California may also be won by consumers.

In spite of trillions of dollars in pandemic stimulus relief, solar and wind fared no better than oil and coal. Of course, the energy playing field is still far from level. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to make exceptions for dying coal plants, and, will now waive pollution monitoring requirements for a variety of corporations if the claim they can no longer meet standards due to the pandemic. The EPA had already rolled out the red carpet for the oil companies by loosening regulations and allowing them to spoil more public land. On March 31, the White House finally succeeded in derailing progressive emissions and fuel economy standards set by the Obama Administration. They did this by deploying EPA ‘research’ and claiming the change would make cars more affordable. Instead of requiring cars built in 2026 to reach 54 mpg, they will now only be required to reach 40 mpg – the 2020 level. Originally the White House wanted 37 mpg. This reversal will release an additional billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, consume two billion barrels of oil, and burn 80 billion gallons more fuel unless California and its allies can overturn it. By the end of 2019, this Administration had already rolled-back 95 environmental rules. Right now, at the height of this pandemic, and in defiance of our allies, the President is even threatening to withdraw our financial support from the World Health Organization (WHO).

During a crisis of this magnitude, citizens, companies, and nations tend to reevaluate their assumptions, loyalties, and priorities. There will be tough days ahead, and everyone is concerned about the future. More people are now seeing the need to incorporate solar + storage technology into their homes so that they can achieve energy independence and protect themselves and the environment. Ironically, the pandemic has also forced us into a new appreciation for working from home (WFH). Prior to the pandemic only about 3.6% of Americans WFH at least half-time. Today that number has skyrocketed to about 56%. What will it look like next year at this time? I agree with the estimates that 25%-30% will continue to WFH. I doubt that commuters are missing the exhaustion, expense, and carbon guilt. Moreover, the word is out about WFH. Since 2018 we have had good data from a Stanford study. It showed that WFH can greatly increase productivity, reduce emissions, and lower costs for employers and employees. It also demonstrated that WFH improves quality of life and reduces stress for employees. Moving forward, WFH must be part of our overall resiliency strategy, regardless of how many ultimately resume their commute. Furthermore, everyone in an applicable job will need to know how to WFH at a moment’s notice if needed.

When many Americans make the permanent transition to WFH, it will substantially affect utilities, employers, and resiliency planning. During this pandemic, total commercial energy use has fallen by 25%, while residential use has increased 6%-8%. American WFH households are using about a third more electricity or 3,000 kWh on top of their average 11,000 kWh per year. Many people will want to have substantial battery storage back-up, especially if their livelihoods depend on keeping themselves connected and comfortable while they WFH.

For many of those who have unobstructed south facing roof space, PV solar panels combined with storage is an obvious choice to achieve residential or commercial resiliency. However, electrification cannot just benefit those who can afford their own energy islands. We need to continue to push for legislation, and work with cities and developers to ensure multi-family, senior, student, and affordable housing projects also achieve energy resiliency. This will undoubtedly include solar thermal systems in many instances. Is anyone ready to imagine the implications of losing power during an extended pandemic? We need to bring electrification with real resiliency to the entire community.

During this crisis, let’s not forget all the critical infrastructure workers, including all those who have been processing, stocking, and delivering our food, medications, and goods. When this pandemic has passed, we need to honor the sacrifices that our first responders, doctors, and nurses have made. They may need long-term care. We must never allow our national and local PPE stockpiles to be mismanaged again. Right now, you can help by making your own mask, washing your hands, and following social distancing. When you return to work, be vigilant and follow best practices to contain COVID-19. We can’t let our guard down, even after a vaccine for this round has been made available to everyone. Pandemics have an awful history of coming in waves.

Moving forward, we will also all need to take a lot more personal responsibility for ensuring that we and our families are prepared. We have a vested interest in making sure that our less fortunate neighbors are protected as well. We need to be well in order to live productive lives and build a better future. That future cannot be achieved without energy. The employee owners at Sun Light & Power are working hard to ensure that solar + storage will be at the forefront of this evolution.

Seamas Brennan is the Marketing Coordinator for Sun Light & Power.

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