Motherboard: Shifting America to solar power is a grueling, low-paid job

Motherboard had an interesting article on the nature of solar jobs, describing the work as transient and low-paying. You can read the beginning third below, or click the link for the full story.


Thomas Shade got his first job in a solar field at age 41. “I fell in love with it. I left a job where I didn’t feel like a human,” Shade told Motherboard. At 16, Shade worked in a cotton mill dyeing fabrics to support a newborn son. He then passed through a series of fiberglass factories. He spent a decade on the open road as a long haul trucker. In 2011, he was sick of working the graveyard shift in the oven room of a machine generator plant, so when a friend called him and said a temp firm was hiring laborers to install utility-scale solar power near his hometown in rural western North Carolina, Shade thought to himself “I wouldn’t mind doing that as a side gig.” Soon he had quit his other jobs to work full time in the solar fields. 

“Outside on the solar farm, I felt more free,” he said. “You didn’t feel like you was trapped like you were inside of a plant.”

When the project ended, a few months later, Shade signed up with PeopleReady, the national temp labor agency, to work on another utility-scale solar farm two hours away in Rockingham, North Carolina. Since then, Shade has lived on the road chasing solar projects, from Texas to Virginia to South Carolina to Nevada to Florida to Maryland to Georgia. “It’s a hard life to live,” said Shade. “You’re always away from friends and family. Sometimes you don’t know anybody.”

Temp agencies are as common in the solar industry as they are in construction. Many workers are needed to install a solar field, but much fewer are needed once it’s up and running. Besides PeopleReady, there’s companies like WorkRise, 360 Industrial Services, Aerotek, and Tradesmen. Shade has worked for lots of different temp companies.

For each project, Shade has had to negotiate with a recruiter on the phone over his hourly wages and a daily housing stipend, known as a per diem. In the solar industry, it’s common to have two workers doing the same job for vastly different pay and living stipends, multiple solar workers and labor organizers told Motherboard. Nico Ries, an organizer at Green Workers Alliance who has engaged with hundreds of renewable energy workers, said getting paid a higher wage than other workers with the same experience often “boils down to nepotism.” “Workers often refer to it as the good ol’ boy system,” they said. Frequently, local hires and other newcomers to the industry who might commute an hour or two to get to a worksite do not receive per diem stipends.

Shade said he’s been paid anywhere from $16 to $25 an hour to operate heavy equipment, but has had no luck finding a full-time job in the industry with benefits. 

Before Shade met his fiancé on a solar farm in 2017, he used to pile into motel rooms with other workers on the same projects in order to save money. They would cook pork chops and steaks on portable flat iron stoves in their motel room after 12-hour days in the fields, six or seven days a week. “They don’t want to pay you enough for your room and for you to eat for the week,” Shade said. “So you got two guys in beds and a guy sleeping on the floor, one guy on the couch or a chair.” 

An itinerant low-wage workforce that chases solar installation projects from state to state for meager wages has proliferated around the country as the U.S. increasingly transitions to green energy. People down on their luck uproot their lives and travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to solar panel installation projects in the remotest parts of the country. Many of these projects are utility-scale, meaning they provide energy to utility companies, who then use it to power the grid. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of workers in the solar industry more than doubled from 93,000 to 231,000 people, according to the most recent National Solar Jobs Census report. In 2019, solar panel installer was the third fastest growing job in the United States.But unlike the unionized oil and coal workers in company towns of decades past, the majority of today’s solar farm installers are poor, receive minimal benefits, and are always on the move to the next project because solar fields require little maintenance once they’re set up. Only 10 percent of solar workers are unionized, according to the census report. Workers on solar projects are often employed by temp agencies or subcontractors. And while the workforce is diverse—Black, white, Latinx, women, men, undocumented, and formerly incarcerated—the unifying trait of this workforce is overwhelming sense of financial desperation. As the New York Times noted, the current state of the solar industry throughout much of the country resembles Amazon warehouse work and the gig economy with “grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.” 

“Solar companies like to think of themselves as not part of the construction industry and better because they’re fulfilling a renewable energy mission to address climate change,” said Carol Zabin, the director of UC Berkeley’s green economy program.  “But they can be just as bad employers. There’s a fair amount of the most egregious violations of basic protections.” 

In recent years, progressive Democrats have unveiled sweeping plans to create millions of union jobs in green energy industries to rebuild the middle class. Most ambitiously, in 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal, which failed to pass the Senate, envisioned a revamped version of FDR’s New Deal that called on the federal government to eliminate its reliance on the fossil fuel industry by subsidizing millions of union jobs in clean energy. In 2020, President Biden campaigned on the promise to create 10 million middle class clean economy jobs in the United States. On June 6, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to expand clean energy creation and create good-paying jobs in solar and other clean energy industries. One of the pillars of Biden’s new plan is to support “a diverse solar workforce with good-paying jobs, including pathways to stable careers with the free and fair choice to join a union.” The administration has not released numbers on how many jobs will be created. 

“If you work for a temp agency in solar, excuse my language, but I’m being truthful, you’re shit out of luck.”

Still, the Green New Deal languished in a divided Congress, and major gains for renewable energy jobs were not included in Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Such provisions could make it into the reconciliation bill that is currently held up in talks between West Virginia senator Joe Manchin and New York senator Chuck Schumer. But so far, specific details of that bill have not been released. This raises an important problem: The United States desperately needs to shift to greener energy. But for now, in most of the country, the workers building America’s solar farms and facilitating the transition to clean energy are struggling to survive. 

Motherboard spoke to six solar farm workers about how they ended up in the industry, their working conditions, and their struggles to make a living as conditions in the industry have deteriorated in recent years in a race to the bottom among contractors competing to offer the lowest bids on solar projects. Workers described grueling six and seven-day workweeks, cramped living conditions, rampant wage theft, and minimal training on dangerous projects. 

“Conditions have gotten worse in solar over the last decade but even more so in the last two years,” said Ries, the organizer at Green Workers Alliance. “In the last two years, things have rapidly declined regarding pay, per diem, safety and nepotism.”