Over 106,000 workers in clean energy lost their jobs in March, and more layoffs are coming. Here’s why that matters.

Bob Keefe
Bob Keefe
Apr 15, 2020 · 5 min read

More than 106,000 clean energy industry workers lost their jobs in March alone. A half-million clean energy workers could be jobless in the months ahead if Congress and state lawmakers don’t step up and do more to support what has become one our nation’s biggest employment sectors.

Of course, many Americans are struggling. Nearly 22 million workers across the entire economy filed for unemployment benefits through April 16.

But the analysis of clean energy unemployment data by E2 partner BW Research shows the crushing impact of the COVID-19 health and economic crises on one of the biggest, fastest-growing job sectors in America — one essential to our economy, our resilience and our environment.

According to BW, the 106,400 clean energy jobs lost in March alone wipes out all 2019 job gains across solar, wind, energy efficiency and clean vehicle and energy efficiency materials manufacturing. Energy efficiency — the biggest employer in our nation’s energy sector — lost the most jobs (nearly 70,000) followed by renewable energy (16,500 jobs) and clean transportation (12,300 jobs).

Behind those numbers are hard-working Americans in every state. They include electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians and other construction workers in energy efficiency. They are factory workers who manufacture Energy Star appliances, insulation, widows, LED lighting systems and other building materials. They’re solar and wind engineers and installers, and auto workers who build electric and hybrid vehicles and parts that go in them. You can read some of their stories here.

Before COVID-19, the clean energy industry helped lead the economy in job growth. E2’s just-released Clean Jobs America 2020 report shows the industry grew by more than 10 percent over the last five years to reach nearly 3.4 million jobs. More people worked in clean energy than worked as school teachers, real estate agents, bankers or farmers.

Nearly 3.4 million Americans worked in clean energy at the start of 2020. https://e2.org/reports/clean-jobs-america-2020/

Across the entire U.S. energy sector, clean energy is by far is the biggest employer — providing jobs to about three times as many Americans as the fossil fuels industry. For perspective, about twice as many clean energy workers lost their jobs in March than work in the entire coal mining industry. You can bet if 50,000 coal miners lost their jobs in a single month, Washington would be doing something about it.

And yet, while other industries get plenty of support from lawmakers in Washington, clean energy workers are left struggling as employers face unique financing challenges and dramatic demand declines directly related to COVID-19 and the economic tailspin.

BW Research predicts over the next several months, 500,000 clean energy workers — about 15 percent of the entire workforce — could be jobless, as buildings remain off-limits to energy efficiency workers and demand plummets because of COVID-19; as 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 as factories remain shuttered or slow to restart.

March 2020 clean energy unemployment filings by state. SOURCE: BW Research Partners

When the COVID-19 crisis is finally over, we’ll all want to go to the store, hop on a plane to see family or clients and get a fresh haircut and good meal before we do. We won’t necessarily be pining to do a major energy efficiency retrofit, put solar panels on our roof or buy an electric car. Before COVID-19 clean energy was booming. Now, without directed stimulus to overcome the COVID-driven demand declines the clean energy sector and its workers are on the line.

Lawmakers don’t have to sit back and watch clean energy crumble and its 3.4 million workers suffer. They should heed the warning signs and act quickly and decisively with policies that can stem the losses.

For starters, Congress can resurrect and boost weatherization programs and community block grants to get energy efficiency workers back on the job. It can extend expiring tax credits and deadlines for clean energy; reinstate the Treasury Department’s 1603 program, and expand Department of Energy loan and grant programs to jump-start clean energy projects. It can invest in electricity grid infrastructure programs to put people back to work fixing our outdated power grid, and it can launch a national program to build more clean vehicle infrastructure like we did for automakers with highways after the Depression. See a full list of policy recommendations here.

In a crisis of this size, federal and state 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 more than 40 years old — more efficient and healthier while also getting energy efficiency 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 should electrify our homes and commercial buildings, which currently use about 40 percent of all energy consumed in America. Replacing old oil, propane and gas appliances with clean, electric equipment and putting solar on rooftops would get workers back on the job while also combatting pollution, health problems and climate change.

Similarly, upgrading our outdated national electric grid would help move energy around the country more efficiently and also prevent disasters like the country’s worst wildfire, sparked in 2018 by the failure of a 100-year-old hook. According to one recent study, 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 like the 45,000-employee Tesla Inc. got DOE loans — loans that were fully repaid — to open factories. And we literally created millions of new jobs in clean energy, in record time.

In these dark days of crisis, clean energy represents a clear and bright opportunity. For all the workers losing their jobs today, and for a cleaner, more resilient economy for all of us tomorrow, it’s an opportunity we should seize.

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