Energy job losses seen as ‘motivator’ in Trump-Biden race

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 12, 2020

The nation’s clean energy industries are showing little sign of a post-COVID-19 renaissance as the presidential election nears, posting “anemic” job growth last month even as nearly half a million people remained out of work.

About 12,500 clean energy jobs trickled back in September, leaving some 477,900 people — or 14% of the sector — unemployed after being laid off during the pandemic, according to an analysis of federal data from California-based BW Research Partnership published Wednesday.

Clean industry advocates who commissioned the analysis say the findings are proof that a green stimulus is necessary, along with a more immediate extension of renewable tax credits and other short-term policies. That’s been a recurring request as the pandemic grinds on.

But the regional breakdown of job losses may also raise questions about its importance in the November elections. Several of the top 10 states with the most unemployed clean energy workers are considered swing states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and Florida. Between 15,000 and 25,000 clean energy workers remain out of a job in each of those five states.

The sector has also been “particularly slow to rebound” compared with the broader economy, according to the analysis, growing about 60% slower than overall jobs.

“The real problem here is, we’re not seeing recovery at anywhere near the rate we need,” said Greg Wetstone, president of the nonprofit American Council on Renewable Energy, one of the groups that commissioned the analysis.

“There are a number of purple states where there’s been a lot of clean energy development” over the last decade, he said. “In a close election, people losing their jobs is going to be a motivator.”

The majority of the positions that returned last month — some 8,354 — were in energy efficiency, which is by far the largest employer in the sector. Renewable power generation grew by more than 2,200 jobs, with clean vehicles, clean fuels and grid services all adding fewer than 1,000.

“The data show another month of anemic growth in the clean energy sector. Job growth will need to accelerate much more rapidly to get to ‘rebound’ territory,” said Phil Jordan, vice president and principal researcher at BW Research.

Racial disparities have also persisted: While unemployment for white clean energy workers declined, it did not change for Black and Hispanic workers, according to the analysis.

The largest percentage declines in employment occurred in Georgia, where more than 31% of the workforce has been laid off; Kentucky (28%); and Hawaii (24%). Georgia also had the second-highest losses, at almost 27,000, behind only the 81,826 positions lost in California.

Some of the swing states that ranked near the top for job losses are also major producers of oil and gas, a traditionally Republican-allied industry.

The Trump administration maintains it has created millions of jobs and boosted domestic energy production and exports. “Trump will never stop championing the men and women who work hard to produce energy for our nation and the world,” an April Trump campaign press release said, noting the president’s efforts to help negotiate a multi-nation oil production cut.

But Leah Stokes, a political scientist who studies environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, predicted that former clean energy workers would blame the Trump administration for blocking stimulus measures that would rejuvenate growth in their sector.

“If you’re one of the almost 15% of unemployed, you know who’s to blame,” said Stokes. “I do think those people are going to vote.”