Renewable energy has been one of the few bright spots in the midst of a global pandemic, as solar and wind power have exploded through power grids around the world. But the industry that supports renewable energy is being devastated: The US economy lost nearly 600,000 clean energy jobs in March and April, highlighting what had been one of the fastest growing sources of employment in the world. country. All renewable energy job gains in the last five years have been eliminated.
The numbers demolished previous estimates. Jobs in energy efficiency, renewable energy and electric vehicles tripled the losses originally reported for March, according to an analysis of data from the BW Research Department of Labor. His previous analysis had estimated that the industry would lose half a million jobs by the end of June; But that grim milestone came in late April.
"We looked at those March numbers and thought, 'This is really pretty severe and it's going to get worse," said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Renewable Energy Council, one of the green energy groups that commissioned the report. "But I think what we didn't realize is that March was just a sign of what was to come."
With state governments blocking large areas of the United States in an attempt to curb the coronavirus, the unemployment rate has risen to nearly 15 percent, the worst since the Great Depression. The Labor Department reported Thursday morning that claims for unemployment benefits have reached 36.5 million.
Clean energy workers are no exception. During the pandemic, workers are unable to enter homes and buildings to upgrade old equipment and make it more efficient. Funding for clean energy projects has also dried up, as investors try to wait for the economic downturn and even those projects that are in operation find it difficult to buy panels and parts from closed factories around the world.
The clean energy industry employed more than 3.4 million Americans last year, triple the number employed by the fossil fuel sector, and without federal help, industry leaders are warning the situation could get worse. BW Research now estimates that the industry could lose 850,000 jobs, a quarter of those employed in clean energy, by the end of June.
Wetstone said he hopes the federal government will pull a page out of the 2009 Obama-era Recovery Act, which helped renewable energy recover from the Great Recession. That bill included a provision that allowed wind and solar power developers to continue to use federal tax credits.
Even in good times, renewables developers often don't owe enough taxes to the federal government to make green energy tax credits worth it, so they partner with large investors who can offset their own taxes. However, when the economy crashes, investors don't owe as much taxes, so they are unwilling to participate. The 2009 bill avoided this problem by converting those tax credits into grants. Doing that now, Wetstone said, could get a lot of people back to work sooner.
So far, however, there are few signs that the federal government is helping the struggling renewable industry. "We have seen the president speak openly in defense of the oil and gas sector," Wetstone said. "And we certainly hope that our champions are willing to stand up and provide the help we are looking for in the clean energy sector."