By David Wallace, P.E.
With lots of land and sun, the wide-open spaces of Texas are proving to be a great location for solar farms, paving the way for this top energy producing state to expand its foothold in the renewable energy sector. According to the Energy Information Administration, about one-third of the utility-scale solar capacity planned to come online in the United States in the next two years, about 30 gigawatts (GW), will be in Texas. California currently has the most installed utility-scale solar capacity of any state, but Texas has been catching up. In 2021, Texas added 6,060 mega-watts (MW) of solar power and has been tracking to add 10 GW of utility-scale solar capacity by the end of 2022, making it one of the fastest-growing and largest markets for solar power. This is until the U.S. Department of Commerce initiated an investigation for circumvention tariffs on solar products from Asian countries in late March. The decision came only four months after the agency rejected a similar petition that increased solar prices and threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers in the solar industry.
Improving economics and government tax incentives spurred investment in utility-scale solar facilities in Texas. This, combined with overall declining costs to produce solar power over the past decade, provided a boost in investments in new solar capacity in the state. In fact, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) ranked Texas as the top solar state in 2021, beating California. This momentum is now at risk due to the threat of tariffs and could ultimately result in the loss of 70,000 American jobs, including 11,000 manufacturing jobs nationally.
Job creation has been one of the most noteworthy and impactful benefits of the recent exponential growth of the solar industry in the U.S. McCarthy Building Companies’ Renewable Energy and Storage group is involved with numerous utility-scale solar projects for private solar developers and utilities. The group is currently constructing or has completed nearly 70 utility-scale clean energy projects in states across the country including Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, Utah, and Texas. These solar projects have created new jobs for thousands of workers. In the last six months, McCarthy has constructed three utility-scale solar projects in northeast Texas, serving as the Engineer, Procure, Construction (EPC) contractor:
- A new 392-megawatt solar project in Sulphur Springs, Texas which is approximately 80 miles east of Dallas, is currently under construction, requiring approximately 400 workers to build. The solar farm will consist of 876,000 photovoltaic panels and 85 central inverters and will cover approximately 3,000 acres. Electricity produced on this farm will go straight into the electrical grid.
- Elm Branch: Situated 40 miles south of Dallas in Ennis, Texas is a solar farm comprised of more than 360,000 solar panels across approximately 1,350 acres of land, employing more than 150 workers during peak construction. The 163-megawatt farm is generating 272,000 megawatt hours of solar power annually – or enough energy to power 24,790 U.S. homes in a year, while reducing CO2 emissions by 156,000 metric tons.
- Briar Creek: Approximately 50 miles southeast of Dallas in Corsicana, Texas is a 153-megawatt large-scale solar project, which consists of 345,000 solar panels, sitting on 2,000 acres which created 150 jobs for its construction. The solar farm is generating enough clean and economic electricity to power 27,270 homes and a project of this size allows for the offset of 223,440 metric tons of CO2 annually.
During the construction process, there are 50 different operations occurring at any given time. Projects such as those mentioned above support more than 700 laborers and staff. McCarthy likes to hire locally and retain those who want to pursue a career in construction. To fill the construction workforce shortage gap, McCarthy implemented an accredited apprenticeship program for U.S. military veterans, which launched with solar construction projects in Texas, including 30 veteran apprentices on Elm Branch and nearly 40 veteran apprentices on Briar Creek.
McCarthy partnered with ACS, a veteran-owned staffing organization to implement its accredited apprenticeship program. The program is free for veterans and each apprentice builds skill through the combination of on-the-job training, mentorship, and technical instruction. The curriculum is designed to help veterans understand and develop the skills and knowledge essential to be successful on construction projects. Successful apprentices are eligible to be hired full time and continue to work with McCarthy on solar projects around the country.
“Solar has been providing excellent opportunities for underemployed or unemployed veterans and workers to embark on new rewarding careers,” said Scott Canada, Senior Vice President of McCarthy’s Renewable Energy & Storage group. “Veterans bring incredibly valuable skills that sync well with solar construction, including leading teams, working outdoors, and focus on completing the job. Through our accredited apprentice training program, we’re training them in the trades and providing a path for a long-term career in construction. We had great success with the program in Texas and are implementing it elsewhere around the country. Unfortunately, the new tariff threat is already impacting opportunities for Veterans and other Americans who are most in need of employment as the entire industry begins to stall as we await the decision.”
According to SEIA, as of 2020, more than 230,000 Americans work in solar at more than 10,000 companies in every U.S. state. In 2021, the solar industry generated more than $33 billion of private investment in the American economy and by the end of 2021, there were more than 120,000 cumulative U.S. solar installations. According to the natural resources research and consultancy group, Wood Mackenzie, solar deployment will crater by 16 GWs annually if tariffs are imposed. That’s two-thirds of all the solar energy installed last year. And over the next four years, U.S. carbon emissions will increase by 61 million metric tons.
Hopefully the issue will be resolved quickly. If not, the impact of this new tariff will soon extend into the homes of many Americans. It’s already creating clouds of uncertainty in what was otherwise a very sunny future for solar energy in Texas.