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Numbers game: Just how big (or small) is solar industry? Nobody is sure

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A study released in February showed New Jersey ranked third in the nation in solar jobs.

Then came a big announcement in March from an out-of-state company, pledging to add 200 jobs at three new offices in the state.

But if you think all this means the solar industry in the state is coming back strong, think again.

Says who? The industry itself.

“It's safe to say that the vast majority of our members are shedding jobs,” said Lyle Rawlings, the co-founder of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association and the CEO of Advanced Solar Products in Flemington.

It's a far cry from the peak of New Jersey's solar market about three years ago, after a rise that was so meteoric it earned praise as a national leader in green energy and one of the fastest-growing industries in the Garden State.

Rawlings said membership in his association is now in the 40s, down roughly 60 percent from about 125 companies during the best of times from 2008 to 2010.

How many jobs those companies have created is a tougher number to get.

Industry experts say it's anyone's guess, especially in a time when the market has crashed from oversupply and is now staggering back to stability. That's in part because solar-related jobs are spread through ancillary industries such as roofing, electrical supply and professional services, and are difficult to track through surveys.

But Rawlings said that given the slowdown last year in new solar construction, “it would be incredible to think that” the job market was not contracting during that time. Developers only added around 200 megawatts of new solar capacity in New Jersey last year, down from more than 400 megawatts in 2012 as the market was overheating.

Still, some companies have declared their intentions to create jobs in New Jersey. In late March, Provo, Utah-based Vivint Solar said it was adding those 200 jobs at three new offices because it is looking to grow its residential solar business.

Chance Allred, the firm's vice president of sales, said there's been a growing appetite for its investor-backed model of installing rooftop panels — with no upfront costs to homeowners — and selling them power for less than they'd pay through a utility.

“For us it's one of our very best markets,” said Allred, whose firm opened its first N.J. office in Pine Brook in 2011. “That's why some of our success is happening in New Jersey right now. That's a big reason we opened these three markets … (and) we have a lot of runway to go with our current offering.”

The three new offices will open in Sayreville, Mount Laurel and Toms River, with positions including sales representatives, site surveyors, installers and administrators. The move comes after its national customer base grew by more than 300 percent in 2013, the company said.

For Wall-based Trinity Solar, one of the state's oldest solar firms, jobs have fluctuated since it entered the industry in 2004. Spokeswoman Kristen English said the firm started with 35 employees and grew to 400 at its peak.

Over the past year or two, English said Trinity has “leveled off” at about 275 people. But it's now looking to add jobs with the change in season and a robust pipeline, with plans to recruit candidates in every aspect of its business, she said.

Activity in recent years has been fueled in part by new financing offers for homeowners and businesses — in which they can install solar for no money out of pocket — she said in an email message: “That was a game changer. It blew the market wide open.”

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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