Necessary disruptions to life and labor to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus have also dealt a powerful blow to the burgeoning clean energy sector of the U.S. economy.
A new study by the nonpartisan Environmental Entrepreneurs group found that fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the loss of more than 106,000 clean energy jobs in March, including nearly 2,600 in Indiana, and industry leaders said even worse job losses could be coming in the near future.
According to future economic projections, about 500,000 clean energy workers in the U.S. could lose their jobs unless the industry recovers.
“These aren’t green jobs, these are red, white and blue jobs. They’ve been growing faster than the rest of the economy for at least the past five years,” said Environmental Entrepreneurs executive director Bob Keefe. “All of this came to a screeching halt last month with COVID-19.”
The clean energy industry accounts for 3.4 million energy jobs, including solar and wind energy workers, electricians, HVAC technicians, factory workers, electric vehicle manufacturers and many more support activities.
By comparison, about 50,000 people work in the coal industry.
Clean energy companies said that delays in the supply chain, including equipment and permitting delays, construction delays and customer acquisition problems, have plagued the industry since the beginning of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Customers canceled or postponed jobs until the pandemic threat subsides, setting off a chain reaction that affects everyone from contractors to manufacturers.
"Just like that, we watched our business, built over 40-plus years, grind to a halt,"
-- Tina Bennett, president and CEO of CMC Energy Services
“Just like that, we watched our business, built over 40-plus years, grind to a halt,” said Tina Bennett, president and CEO of CMC Energy Services, a company that provides energy efficiency services to companies like Indiana Michigan Power. “Our revenues dropped nearly 85%, and most of our technical field staff have been idled.”
The economic downturn has led clean energy industry leaders to assess their options, and ask the federal government to step in to help the industry like it has done in the past for the auto and airline industries.
“As a result of this pandemic, the solar industry stands to lose half our jobs—that’s 125,000 families who will no longer receive a paycheck. Congress can help stem this tide,” said Abigail Ross Harper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Keefe said supporting the clean energy industry is crucial to the overall health of the U.S. economy, which, in turn, would help rebuild an economy that is cleaner, healthier and more resilient.
“Every job in America counts, and clean energy workers aren’t looking for handouts,” said Keefe. “This isn’t about a green new deal from some left coast liberals. This is about getting hardworking Americans back on the job, putting on their boots, pulling on their gloves and building a better economy for all of us.”
Clean energy companies in Indiana employed 86,892 people in 2019. That includes people employed directly by renewable energy sources like wind and solar power companies, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, battery storage, biofuels and other sectors.
The collapse of clean energy could significantly impact the state’s economy.
Recent legislation, like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, provides some tax incentives for companies.
The U.S. Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program provides low interest, forgivable, loans to help companies keep workers employed.
Bennett said she applied for the loan, and is waiting and hoping her request goes through. If it doesn’t, she said clean energy employees may seek jobs in other sectors that may receive aid faster due to political largesse.
The SBA said it would no longer accept new applications for the program, and it’s unclear whether CMC Energy Services made the cut. A denial from the SBA would present a host of other problems for the company and many others like it.
“After years of developing our highly skilled workforce, we are concerned about losing our workers to other industries that may recover faster. If that happens, it would put us further behind in our recovery and support of urgent climate action goals,” said Bennett.
Industry leaders like Bennett said Congress should write a targeted bill to help the crucial clean energy sector directly.
“We are at a crossroads of uncertainty of our policy future, and the opportunity to seize the moment with strategic public investments in recovery of clean energy jobs. Now is not the time to put ambitious energy efficiency and climate action on the backburner as we focus on recovery efforts,” she said.
Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate will not return for regular legislative action until May.
By then, many more clean energy jobs could already be gone.