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

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Originally published on blog of Union of Concerned Scientists.

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.

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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.

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