How Hard has the COVID-19 Economy Hit Clean Energy Workers?

April 27, 2020
NRDC’s Lara Ettenson details the impact of COVID-19 on clean energy workers and describes what the federal government and states can do to help.

Lara Ettenson, NRDC’s director, energy efficiency, climate & clean energy program, details the impact of COVID-19 on clean energy workers and describes what the federal government and states can do to help.

Courtesy of E2, Clean Jobs America

The COVID-19 pandemic is a national crisis. Swift action to address the health and safety of communities and workers across the nation —particularly those who are sick, caring for loved ones, or face unemployment—is paramount. There’s no doubt that this crisis is having a dramatic impact on our health and economy, and is illuminating just how vulnerable we are in the face of a pandemic.

In particular, all sectors of the U.S. economy have been pummeled by the COVID-19 pandemic, making it critical to support all those whose jobs have been affected, such as by including worker protections in federal stimulus packages. It also will be important to ensure that the demand for work in all areas of America’s employment, including the growing clean energy workforce, remains after we emerge from this health and economic crisis.

A recent report by the National Association of State Energy Officials and the nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative, in partnership with E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), showed that the major clean energy sectors (e.g., energy efficiency, solar, wind, battery storage, and clean vehicles) supported more than 3.3 million U.S. jobs in 2019. Of those, energy efficiency continued to comprise the majority of the workforce at nearly 2.4 million people working to help reduce our energy bills and the pollution that affects our health.

But these jobs are now in jeopardy, with layoffs hitting hard as clean energy programs halt. According to E2’s Clean Energy Jobs America 2020: Repowering America’s Economy in the Wake of COVID-19 publication released last week, more than 100,000 jobs have been lost in March alone.

These are people who manufacture and install wind and solar energy equipment, upgrade buildings with tighter windows and insulation, design and manufacture battery storage, or work on electric and hybrid cars.

What’s more, economic downturns tend to hit harder for smaller operations or hourly-wage workers, which are already the least economically resilient groups. The current downturn could mean having to choose between food or life-saving medicines or in the case of small operations, shutting their doors permanently due to missed income. These circumstances also highlight how this crisis exacerbates existing social inequities across our country that require a just response to recovering from the pandemic.

Courtesy of E2, Clean Jobs America 2020

Feeling the impacts of COVID-19

In 2019, at least 1.7 million (more than half) of clean energy jobs were in the construction industry, but during this crisis construction projects are being halted or cancelled and home sales are expected to plunge.

Courtesy of E2, Clean Jobs America 2020

Building owners (including homeowners) and renters also will not be able to bring in contractors to install efficiency upgrades and even after the crisis subsides, many will likely be reluctant to let workers into their homes or businesses. That lessens the need for energy-saving products, jeopardizing even more jobs as over 800,000 people have been employed to manufacture, install, design, and otherwise support appliances and equipment under the ENERGY STAR® label that indicates highly efficient products.

The wind and solar energy industries, which together added more than 9,000 jobs last year, also are seeing ominous trends. The Solar Energy Industries Association predicts 30 percent of home installations could be cancelled, but could reach 50 percent in many places. That could mean job losses up to 125,000 — half of the sector’s roughly 250,000 workers.

The American Wind Energy Association says roughly 25 gigawatts worth of planned wind projects are at risk, representing $35 billion worth of investment. More than 35,000 jobs could be lost, and the effects will be felt most in rural areas, where the majority of wind projects are located.

The Energy Storage Association reports “potentially devastating” impacts, with 62 percent of energy storage firms reporting delays in projects. These firms manufacture batteries that can save electricity for use when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Supporting clean energy means investing in workers

The latest reports illustrate how clean energy is a strong economic driver, with energy efficiency and fuel efficiency alone contributing over 400,000 new jobs in the last five years. America’s pandemic recovery will in part rely on a strong clean energy push.

To ensure workers who manufacture and install clean energy equipment are supported, we must keep policies and investment strong and make sure workforce-related assistance funding reaches those who need it most. We also must focus on expanding employment opportunities and access for all types of people. As the employment report highlights yet again, non-white workers and women continue to be underrepresented in the clean energy workforce.

Even before COVID-19, the clean energy sector was facing threats from the Trump administration. These have continued during this crisis, with the decision to gut clean car standards in an industry where almost 500,000 people work with the parts to ensure our vehicles are more fuel-efficient. The rollback follows multiple efforts to stymie increased energy efficiency in our lighting, appliances, and equipment. The U.S. Department of Energy’s dismal performance over the past three years in updating and finalizing standards that conserve energy has undercut what could have been an even bigger economic growth story.

Energy efficiency helps lower utility bills at a time when savings are desperately needed by many Americans. Those already hit by a high energy burden are often the same people who feel economic downturns the hardest. What’s more, it’s become clearer that those living in polluted areas, which usually include low-income communities and people of color, have compromised respiratory systems, making them more susceptible to diseases like COVID-19. Addressing the pollution causing the climate crisis can also improve people’s health and reduce economic stress.

Acknowledging clean energy’s multitude of benefits, including to the economy and our health, many states and cities have helped pick up the federal level slack by enacting strong energy efficiency policies.

More support is needed

By istock-artsiom.jpg/Courtesy of NRDC

It will be months before the economy rights itself and life returns to some semblance of normal. In the meantime, we cannot lose sight of how important clean energy will be in that recovery. States like Connecticut, New York, and California have been leaders as they figure out how to keep the clean energy workforce alive while we ride out this crisis and what to do next. Scaling up clean energy as soon as possible after the pandemic subsides will help people struggling to pay their energy bills and help get people back to work.

State-level options include funding workers during the crisis (e.g., through no-interest loans or pre-payments) and creating ways to work remotely in anticipation of a resurgence of projects after restrictions lift (e.g., conduct remote audits or energy advisor meetings, deliver programs providing energy education, hold video meetings to evaluate rooftop solar options). There are also opportunities at the federal level, such as reinstating clean energy block grants and expanding small business loans for clean energy efforts.

We also need to maintain funding for programs while shoring up businesses and workers to seamlessly return when construction activity and home renovations resume. Every state should act to support workers, strengthen clean energy policies, and serve customers who need it the most — which will improve air quality and support a strong clean energy economy.

Lara Ettenson coordinates NRDC’s energy efficiency policy and clean energy workforce activities. This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Expert Blog and was posted with permission.

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