The return of good weather should mark the start of the peak season for U.S. solar installers, but the coronavirus pandemic is giving potential customers cold feet.
Bloomberg Green reports that even homeowners who had already agreed to buy or lease solar panels are backing out, and second-quarter earnings may dip by 48% when compared to the same quarter last year, according to Morgan Stanley. Its report projects 28% lower volume in the third quarter, and 17% less in the fourth quarter when compared to the same periods a year ago.
The pandemic has forced millions of workers off their jobs, souring homeowners on planned home renovations. Wood Mackenzie, a research firm, believes the market could decline by as much as 34% from last year. Pre-pandemic predictions had looked for a 10% growth in spending on remodels nationally.
When the coronavirus first began its spread from Wuhan, China, the fear was that the supply of panels and other solar equipment would be disrupted, causing a bottleneck. “Now the question is will global demand collapse?” Bloomberg analyst Tara Narayanan said.
Social distancing—the recommendation that people stay at least 6 feet away from others in public settings—is one problem. That’s prompted solar companies to abandon plans for door-to-door sales. But uncertainty, lost wages, and business closures all are taking their toll.
The slowdown comes at a time when the industry had hoped to move into the mainstream. A federal tax credit for solar purchases declined this year, but Bloomberg said demand early in the year was surging. California began requiring solar panels on most new homes, and interest in solar and battery systems from homeowners appeared to be on the rise.
Just weeks ago, Bloomberg said, solar companies were trying to hire more workers. Now, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) says 40% of those answering a recent survey report staffing cuts.
Gordon Johnson, an analyst at GLJ Research, said: “People are not going to sign up for a 20-year lease or pay $20,000 for a rooftop system if they don’t know whether they’re going to be able to pay their mortgages in two or three months. We’re looking at a drawn-out recession.”
Solar industry group sounds a warning
In a statement late last month, the SEIA warned the pandemic had put the industry at risk. More than three-quarters of all solar companies have fewer than 50 employees, the trade group said, and nearly all of them are worried about delays in construction, the supply chain, and permitting.
“Again, it’s important to note the impacts are pervasive in our society,” the statement said. “According to a national survey by Navigator, the economic impact is not only being felt nationally, but personally. A majority (60%) of Americans are now uneasy about their personal financial situation, up 13 points from earlier in March (47%).”
Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and CEO, said the $2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress should help the industry. It includes long-term unemployment insurance and business loans that will help companies keep their employees.
“As a result of this pandemic, the solar industry stands to lose half of our jobs — that’s 125,000 families who will no longer receive a paycheck,” she said in a statement posted at the SEIA website. “Congress can help stem this tide. Economic stimulus legislation can help our companies sustain families and invest tens of billions of dollars into the economy over the next couple of years. ”
Efficiency jobs also at risk
The energy efficiency sector, which helps homeowners and businesses save energy through equipment upgrades and building retrofits, also is taking a big hit from the pandemic, E&E News reports.
The industry, the largest source of energy jobs in the country, is experiencing mass layoffs as state and utility programs suspend or sharply limit weatherization work. In some states, efficiency program employees are no longer permitted to visit potential clients, and weatherization programs have ground to a halt.
“Bottom line, what we’re seeing and hearing is horrible,” Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, a clean energy advocacy group, told E&E News. “We’re seeing work stoppages that are costing millions of dollars even for small companies. These people need help.”
Even where states have not issued bans on in-house visits, utilities don’t want to run the risk that an efficiency program employee would infect a homeowner with the coronavirus. For businesses like Lime Energy, which is based in New Jersey and operates in 12 states, a curtailment of utility rebates has reduced demand from small business for energy retrofits. As a result, Lime has furloughed 200 of its employees, two-thirds of its workforce.
Virtual business can help
ReVision Energy, a certified B corporation with 270 employees that operates in four New England states, has dialed back its residential installations in the face of the pandemic but continues with commercial work. Fortunat Mueller, the firm’s co-founder and president, said in a telephone call that some support and installation crews have been furloughed for the month of April, but are expected back at work when the pandemic eases. In the meantime, benefits included in the $2 trillion stimulus package will keep the financial impact on those employees and their families to a minimum.
While on-site residential work is on hold, and the lunch-and-learn and green fairs the company normally participates in have been canceled, Mueller says virtual meetings with the help of apps like Zoom are going forward. For instance, 400 people signed up for a recent online briefing on battery storage for solar (a schedule of upcoming events plus a recording of the battery event can be found here.)
“It’s early days, but I think it’s going really well,” he said of the company’s wider adoption of web-based communication. “It’s something we’ve been thinking about and doing a little of, and this has sort of forced our hand.”
ReVision also conducts virtual consultative calls with prospective residential clients, doing basically the thing that would have taken place in person before the pandemic struck. These conversations often extend well beyond buying solar panels to include heating, hot water, and charging electric vehicles. Mueller calls the process
“Instead of sitting across the kitchen table we connect one-on-one with a customer through Zoom or FaceTime or whatever the customer is comfortable with and we talk through the same process.” Mueller said. “If they’re willing, we walk right through the house with their phone and we take pictures through the Zoom app as if we were there. It’s incredibly similar to what we have been doing in person. We’re just doing it from our home offices.”
The future still looks bright for renewables
Short-term problems may look ominous, but the steady growth in renewable energy over the last decade will continue, industry experts said.
The New York Times reported that renewable energy will account for more than 20% of the total electricity in the U.S. for the first time this year. That’s an increase from 18% last year and just 10% a decade ago.
Wind and solar produce cheaper electricity than natural gas and coal in Texas, California and other regions. So even with lower oil and gas prices,the long-range financial health for the fossil fuel industry doesn’t look as bright as it does for renewables.
Dan Reicher, a former assistant energy secretary and the founding executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, told the Times, “Renewables are on a growth trajectory today that I think isn’t going to be set back long term. This will be a bump in the road.”