By Bob Keefe
April 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
More than 106,000 clean energy workers lost their jobs in March alone, according to a new analysis of unemployment data. A half-million such workers could be out of work in the months ahead if Congress and state lawmakers don’t step up to support what has become one of our nation’s biggest employment sectors.
Of course, Americans everywhere are struggling. But the review by Environmental Entrepreneurs partner BW Research of preliminary clean energy unemployment data shows the crushing impact of the health and economic crises on one of the biggest, fastest-growing job sectors in America — one essential to our economy, resilience and environment.
According to BW, the 106,400 clean energy jobs lost in March wipes out all 2019 job gains across renewables, energy efficiency and clean vehicle and energy efficiency materials manufacturing. Energy efficiency — the overall energy sector’s largest employer — saw the biggest losses (69,800 jobs), followed by renewable energy (16,500) and clean transportation (12,300).
Behind those numbers are hard-working Americans in every state and county. They include electricians, plumbers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians in energy efficiency. They are factory workers manufacturing ENERGYSTAR appliances, insulation, widows and LED lighting systems. They’re solar and wind engineers, and auto workers building electric and hybrid vehicles and the parts that go in them.
Before COVID-19, the clean energy industry helped lead the economy in job growth as it has for years. E2’s just-released Clean Jobs America 2020 report found the industry grew 10.4 percent since 2015 to reach nearly 3.4 million jobs at the end of 2019.
More people worked in clean energy in 2019 than worked as schoolteachers, real estate agents or farmers. Clean energy is by far the biggest employer in the U.S. energy sector — providing three times as many jobs as the fossil fuels industry.
BW Research predicts over the next several months some 15 percent of the entire clean energy workforce could be jobless, as buildings remain off-limits to energy efficiency workers and demand for future contracts plummets because of COVID-19; financing dries up for solar and wind projects unable to benefit from tax credits they were counting on because of COVID’s impact on tax equity markets; and factories remain shuttered or slow to restart.
So where is the needed stimulus help from Congress?
Before COVID-19, clean energy was booming. Now, without directed stimulus to overcome the COVID-driven demand declines, America’s 490,000 clean energy businesses and their workers are at risk.
For starters, Congress can resurrect weatherization programs and community block grants to get energy efficiency workers back on the job; extend tax credits and deadlines for clean energy; reinstate the Treasury Department’s 1603 program; expand Department of Energy loan and grant programs to jump-start projects; invest in electricity grid infrastructure programs to begin fixing our outdated power grid; and launch a national program to build clean vehicle infrastructure like we did for automakers with highways after the Great Depression.
In a crisis of this size, lawmakers also need to think big, and creatively.
Right now, more than 98,000 schools sit empty and will be for months. What better time to make those schools — which average over 40 years old — more efficient while also getting workers back on the job? While we’re at it, why not replace some of the 480,000 diesel-belching school buses sitting idle today with electric buses, putting auto workers back to work?
We also can electrify our homes and commercial buildings, which consume about 40 percent of all energy in America. Replacing old oil, propane and gas appliances with clean, electric equipment and putting solar on rooftops would mean paychecks for thousands of struggling workers while also combating climate change.
One recent study found our power grid needs $30 billion to $90 billion in upgrades. That would put a lot of grid and storage workers back on the job.
We know from experience that investing in clean energy can jump-start our economy. We did it in 2009, after the Great Recession. Back then, America invested $90 billion in clean energy. As a result, construction workers broke ground on more than 100,000 renewable energy projects. Energy efficiency workers weatherized 1 million homes. Companies such as Tesla got DOE loans to open factories, which were fully repaid and, pre-COVID, employed 45,000 workers.
In these dark days of crisis, clean energy represents the clearest opportunity to power a more cost-effective, resilient and prosperous economy for workers and businesses tomorrow. It’s an opportunity that we need to seize now.
Bob Keefe is the executive director for E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors and professionals from every sector of the economy who advocate for smart policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment.
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