EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - The future is bright for the solar sector in Minnesota, state and industry leaders said this week.

Minnesota boasted 4,256 solar jobs in 2017, a 48 percent increase from 2016, according to the National Solar Jobs Census. The eighth annual report from the Solar Foundation ranked Minnesota 16th for job growth, Gov. Mark Dayton's office said in a email last week.

"Minnesota has led the nation in the development of renewable energy," Dayton said. "We will continue doing everything we can to protect our environment and our health, while building an even stronger clean energy economy in Minnesota."

This is the first year since the foundation started doing the annual reports in 2010 that the solar industry saw a drop in U.S. jobs. The industry reported about 250,000 jobs last year, a 4 percent decrease, according to the report. Over the past eight years, the industry has grown 168 percent from 93,000 jobs in 2010.

"After six years of rapid and steady growth, the solar industry faced headwinds that led to a dip in employment in 2017, including a slowdown in the pace of new solar installations," Foundation President and Executive Director Andrea Luecke said in a statement. "Uncertainty over the outcome of the trade case also had a likely impact on solar jobs growth."

Minnesota was one of 29 states that saw an uptick in jobs, which Luecke found encouraging.

North Dakota was not mentioned in the report. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates there are about 175 jobs in North Dakota's solar industry, making it the state with the lowest number of solar jobs in the country.

The easiest way to measure growth is by megawatt, Minnesota SEIA Executive Director John Kearney said Thursday, Feb. 8. The state grew its solar energy generation from about 13 MWs in 2013 to 771 MWs at the end of last year, he said.

Growth has been spread out among private, commercial and public sectors because of support from state legislation, as well as encouragement from local and county governments, Kearney said. Costs to install solar panels also have come down, he noted.

The state's SEIA expects it will hit, if not exceed, a gigawatt, or 1,000 MWs, by the end of 2018, he added.

"Solar is becoming more and more cost-competitive with fossil fuel sources," he said. "Everybody is working together to make this happen."

The upsurge in Minnesota isn't without its problems. About 33 percent of Minnesota employers reported it was "very difficult" to find qualified workers to fill positions, almost double the 18 percent reported in the U.S., according to the report.

Kearney said the shortage of workers hasn't reached crisis mode yet in Minnesota, but it has slowed down some projects.

"It is very challenging to find qualified workers, but there is a lot of effort going on to deal with that," he said, adding solar companies and unions are hosting training sessions for solar jobs while colleges offer more renewable energy degrees.

Still, he felt the future of the solar industry in his state is promising, and other states like North Dakota could do more to tap solar energy if they focused on it.

"It's a matter of catching up," he said.