Clean Energy Sector Sheds 106,000 Jobs in March

The renewable energy sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 106,000 U.S. workers losing their jobs last month, according to an analysis of unemployment data released April 15 from several clean energy groups.

Wednesday’s report said hundreds of thousands more job losses in the sector are expected in the next several months due to the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, which have disrupted supply chains and created project delays worldwide.

The analysis of Department of Labor data by groups including E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), E4TheFuture, and BW Research Partnership found that 106,472 workers in clean energy occupations filed for unemployment benefits in March. Those job losses wiped out all 2019 job gains in the clean energy sector, which includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, energy storage, and clean fuels.

Jobs lost include electricians, HVAC and mechanical trades technicians and construction workers who work in energy efficiency; solar installers; wind industry engineers and technicians; and manufacturing workers employed by electric and other clean-vehicle manufacturing companies and suppliers.

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of ACORE, said the analysis “quantifies in stark terms the damage COVID-19 is already doing to the renewable energy workforce, and the devastating trajectory we’re facing absent help from Congress. The renewable sector is being hit hard by supply chain disruptions, shelter-in-place orders and other significant pandemic-related delays.”

‘Historic’ Economic Fallout

Wetstone was among several clean energy industry executives who participated in a conference call with media on Wednesday. Phil Jordan, vice president and principal at BW Research Partnership, said, “The economic fallout from COVID-19 is historic in both size and speed. Activities across the entire range of clean energy activities, from manufacturing electric vehicles to installing solar panels, are being impacted. And the data pretty clearly indicate that this is just the beginning.”

The clean energy sector has been among the nation’s fastest-growing employment sectors over the past several years, growing 10.4% since 2015, according to the Labor Department. According to a separate report released today by E2, the number of U.S. clean energy jobs rose to almost 3.4 million at the end of 2019. The report, “Clean Jobs America 2020,” found the industry accounted for more than half of the entire energy sector’s job growth in 2019, adding more than 70,000 jobs for a 2.2% growth rate.

Employment in the clean energy sector rose for five straight years from 2015-2019, and the renewable energy sector had about 523,000 jobs to start 2020. The report said that at the beginning of this year, the nation’s clean energy workforce accounted for about one of every 50 U.S. workers. It said the number of workers in the sector is more than three times the number employed by the fossil fuel industry.

The analysis released Wednesday showed that job growth crashed in March as part of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. A memo from BW Research Partnership on Tuesday noted losses across several states, and projected that more than a half-million clean energy workers, or 15% of the sector’s entire workforce, would lose their jobs in the coming months, absent intervention from the federal government.

“To stem job losses, we ask Congress to extend the time-sensitive deadlines faced by renewable projects seeking to qualify for critical tax incentives, and to provide temporary refundability for renewable tax credits that are increasingly difficult to monetize,” Wetstone said. “In the end, we’re all in this together, and the renewable energy industry wants to be a key economic driver to help the nation through this downturn, as well as an effective climate solution over the long haul.”

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) did not include relief for the clean energy sector, despite requests from renewable energy advocates. The renewables industry faces uncertainty as the federal wind production tax credit (PTC) and the solar investment tax credit (ITC) approach their ends. The PTC is expiring in 2021, and the ITC is phasing down from 30% in 2019 to 26% for 2020 and 22% for 2021. The CARES Act does not include extensions for either the PTC or the ITC, although industry advocates are pressing for those to be included in any future legislation related to the pandemic.

Most Job Losses in California

California has been hit hardest by the economic downturn from COVID-19, with nearly 20,000 unemployment claims in March. North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Massachusetts were among the states that saw the most unemployment filings in clean energy last month. A total of 26 states saw job losses rise above 1,000, according to the analysis.

The data showed that energy efficiency jobs suffered most, with about 70,000 workers filing for unemployment. Those jobs include electricians, plumbers, construction workers, energy auditors, and others not able to enter homes, offices, and other buildings because of coronavirus quarantines.

Solar and wind companies jettisoned more than 16,000 jobs, with those unemployment numbers expected to rise as financing issues and project delays continue to mount. The clean vehicle sector lost about 12,000 jobs in factories that manufacture electric and hybrid vehicles, and vehicle parts. The data released Wednesday does not include the 20,000 workers that Tesla announced last week that it will furlough.

The electric and hybrid vehicle sector was the only clean energy group that saw job declines last year, falling 2.3% in 2019 in part due to industry uncertainty about rollbacks of federal vehicle emissions and mileage standards. The Labor Department said about 266,000 workers were employed in the sector at the start of this year.

The job losses in 2019 came after a record-setting year in 2018, when the sector added more than 40,000 jobs.

Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, a national group of business leaders, investors, and professionals from across the U.S. economy, said of Wednesday’s report: “What these numbers tell us is that clean energy workers are a huge and important part of America’s workforce, and they are hurting badly. Lawmakers simply cannot ignore the millions of electricians, technicians and factory workers who work in clean energy as they consider ongoing economic recovery efforts, especially since we know from our country’s last economic meltdown that clean energy can lead the way to recovery.”

Keefe continued: “The reality is this: Clean energy jobs don’t know politics. These are American workers getting up every morning, pulling on their boots and putting on their gloves and going to work.”

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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