‘A lot worse.’ Clean energy job losses triple — report

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2020

The collapse of the clean energy workforce reached “staggering” levels in April, with job losses tripling compared with the previous month and threatening to affect 25% of the sector’s jobs by quarter’s end, according to a report released yesterday.

Nationwide, over 447,000 clean energy workers lost their jobs in April because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to California-based firm BW Research Partnership, which performed the analysis for renewable advocates E2, E4TheFuture and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).

The firm also said losses in March turned out to be higher than initially projected, based on readjusted federal data on unemployment claims. Over 147,000 people were laid off that month, rather than the roughly 106,000 figure from an earlier analysis (Energywire, April 16)

In total, the sector has lost 17% of its jobs, or over 594,000 positions, since the COVID-19 outbreak began. That number does not include those who saw their hours or pay reduced.

If Congress doesn’t take action, the analysis warned, as many as 850,000 clean energy workers could be unemployed by the end of the second quarter.

“We don’t think we’ve hit the bottom yet,” said Phil Jordan, principal at BW Research Partnership.

Since layoffs began, the three renewable groups that commissioned the study have urged Congress and the Trump administration to throw out a lifeline for clean energy, calling for new funding for weatherization programs and the extension of tax credit deadlines for wind and solar projects. Late last week, the Treasury Department signaled in a letter to senators that it would act on the credit deadline request (Energywire, May 8).

On a press call yesterday afternoon, the groups pressed the administration to consider aid for renewables along with the oil and gas sector.

“It really needs to stop,” said Greg Wetstone, president of ACORE, in reference to mounting job losses. “We’ve seen the president out in front to protect the oil and gas sector. We would like to see Congress step up to help the renewable and clean energy sector and address these job losses.”

Lawmakers appear headed for a protracted fight over the shape of the next pandemic relief bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken a hard line against new clean energy measures, and a $3 trillion bill unveiled this week by House Democrats doesn’t include new policies, either (E&E Daily, May 13).

Red-state trouble

Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, contrasted the scale of layoffs with the roughly 50,000 people employed as coal miners. “What was bad has gotten a lot worse. And it’ll continue to get worse, unfortunately, if Washington doesn’t do something about it,” he said.

He noted that although California suffered the largest number of layoffs, at nearly 78,000, several of the states with the highest percentage of lost workers were deeply conservative ones, including McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, which saw a quarter of its clean energy jobs evaporate.

“The biggest job losses were in red states,” Keefe said.

The various sectors within clean energy — a term that doesn’t include nuclear power generation — suffered relatively equal percentage losses of their workforce, ranging from about 10% to 14%.

Energy efficiency companies, the largest sector examined in the report, also suffered the largest losses, with over 310,000 jobs in April alone. That was followed by renewable power generation with 72,000 positions. Clean vehicles, grid services and fuel companies also saw tens of thousands of layoffs.

Hispanics and Latinos accounted for a full quarter of those laid off, despite constituting 14% of the workforce — a fact that reflected their lower representation in jobs deemed essential or performed from home, said advocates.

Even as states reopen, said Jordan of BW Research, few companies are likely to see themselves immediately welcomed at residences, meaning state and federal lawmakers should focus on energy installations in schools and other empty public buildings.

It would be unrealistic to expect clean energy companies to rehire staff and quickly return to pre-pandemic rates of growth, he added. “The idea of a V-shaped recovery is becoming very unlikely at this point.”