500,000 US Clean Energy Jobs at Risk from COVID Effects

Coronavirus is negatively affecting the clean energy sector and the impacts are serious.

COVID-19’s serious toll not just on public health but on jobs is visible all around us: across our economy, shuttered shops, idled factories, cancelled events and travel, rush hours devoid of the usual traffic. While the clean energy sector’s piece of this economic crisis may be less visible to many, the impacts there are real, and serious—for the many people who work in clean energy, and for all of us who depend on the incredible progress they’ve made in recent years at ramping up clean energy, strengthening our energy security, reducing air, water, and climate pollution.

Two new analyses offer important new data for understanding the scale and breadth of COVID’s impacts on clean energy workers. One tallies up the initial hit to clean energy workers, and looks at what more pain might be coming. The other looks at where clean energy’s powerful job creation ability had gotten the sector before COVID hit. Here’s what the numbers say about what’s at risk, and why it matters.

How COVID is hitting clean energy

The new analysis of job losses from BW Research, on behalf of clean energy industry and advocates E2, ACORE, and E4TheFuture, found that 106,000 clean energy workers filed for unemployment benefits last month (March). That tally, they report, means that the virus wiped out all the 2019 job growth in clean energy in a single month.

As is the case for other people and other industries, COVID-19’s challenges for US clean energy workers come in various forms. Clean energy workers come from a broad range of sectors.

These 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.

The challenges have to do with the need to keep workers safe, to deal with illnesses or self-quarantining, and to comply with stay-at-home orders.

The clean energy workers that have been hit hardest are generally those with jobs that would bring them into more direct contact with the public. Two-thirds of the job losses tallied for March involved energy efficiency workers. Energy efficiency often involves on-site tasks: assessing needs and implementing solutions, for homes, businesses, institutions, or others. And if workers can’t get on site, it’s a lot harder to do all that.

Renewable energy accounted for another 16% of the unemployment claims, in part because rooftop solar workers are in a similar boat as energy efficiency ones: While the panels themselves go on the roof, plenty of other pieces need to happen indoors. And residential solar accounts for more than half of America’s solar workers.

For large-scale renewable energy projects—wind farms or large solar arrays, for example—the danger may be over longer time periods. Some existing ones can operate with limited staff. New projects may offer enough distancing to allow construction work to continue, and industry folks I’ve talked to are pushing through where possible. But greater challenges, potentially, emerge for the next projects. No public meetings and closed town halls mean delays in permitting. Manufacturing can’t happen if people aren’t allowed in the factories. Transporting parts and materials depends on transportation systems being up and running; supply chains are only as strong as their weakest links.

All of the potential weaknesses in the supply chain add significant uncertainty to how projects might move forward over the coming month. Those weaknesses will, at best, slow project development and, at worst, lead to wide-scale project cancellations. And with those delays and cancellations come more pain for the workers we’re depending on to make more clean energy happen.

Why it matters: Clean energy as a major job creator

Part of why these new challenges to clean energy workers are so important is the large role that the clean energy sector plays in creating American jobs. The second new release, a report from E2, lays out 2019 clean energy employment numbers—documenting job creation last year in “one of the biggest, fastest-growing and most beneficial for both our economy and our environment.”

Clean energy reached noteworthy levels before COVID hit, E2 and others have found:

In all, the E2 report found, the US clean energy sector added more than 70,000 jobs in 2019, bringing the total to 3.4 million workers. That means:

  • Clean energy provided jobs for three times as many people as worked in fossil fuels.
  • For electricity generation, 2.5 times as many people work in renewables as on fossil fuel power plants.
  • One in every 45 US workers works in clean energy.

Small companies are particularly important as job creators in clean energy. E2 found that 2.2 million clean energy workers—that is, almost two-thirds of the total—were in businesses with 19 employees or fewer.

Where clean energy jobs have been—and can be again

Strong job creation in clean energy in recent years is one reason why the pandemic and related economic effects have found such a big target in clean energy. And where those clean energy jobs were before the crisis hit is one strong indicator of what we can get back to, as the basis for much more growth and expansion.

A few charts from the E2 report convey the breadth of the clean energy jobs, from the Heartland to the coasts, and south to north: the leading clean energy states, the leading clean energy cities, and the leading rural areas.

A “wholly different” storm: Heading to 500,000 jobs lost

The 106,000 lost clean energy jobs, as tragic as they are, are just the tip of the job-loss iceberg for the sector. The authors of the new analysis of unemployment data are careful to caveat their findings as “quite conservative”. They also point out that March, the source of the data, was just the leading edge of the COVID storm in the US for clean energy, like it was for the economy as a whole.

In fact, based on estimates of overall economic employment hits and forecasts from clean energy companies and trade associations, the analysis projects job losses of almost five times what last month brought:

…we can project that the clean energy sector has or will lose more than a half million jobs—or 15 percent of its total workforce—in the months ahead if no additional actions are taken to support the industries.

“A loss of that magnitude,” the analysis’s release stated, “would erase the clean energy industry’s total job growth over the last five years.”

Over the course of my almost-30-year career in clean energy, the sector has faced plenty of challenges: sudden market fluctuations, large-scale supply chain issues, even deep financial crises. But as people in so many sectors are seeing, and as all of us as consumers realize, the pervasiveness of the COVID crisis is unprecedented. Including for clean energy. As E2’s report points out, “The clean energy economy has previously weathered choppy seas, but this storm is wholly different.”

For many workers in the clean energy sector, how they weather the COVID storm will depend on what happens to the companies they work for. And what happens to those companies—how quickly the US clean energy industry gets back to smoother seas, and back to job creation—depends a whole lot on the decisions our leaders make about investing in recovery.

The US clean energy sector has been a powerful engine of job creation. It must be again, and it can be.