Some historians will say that America was built on steam. From manufacturing plants run on steam generators to paddlewheel boats plying the Mississippi to great smoke belching locomotives steaming across the plains, tying the East to the West, America grew as its infrastructure grew. In the 1950s, Eisenhower started the modern Interstate Highway System, creating perhaps the greatest infrastructure project of all time. Energy sources expanded to meet the challenge of transportation and daily living as the country went from the Industrial Age to the Nuclear Age and Space Age.
As we start to emerge from the lockdowns of the COVID-19 Age, government must remember that big infrastructure projects have helped America recover from economic calamity in the past. The Pacific Railroad Act helped get America back to work after the Civil War and the WPA (Works Progress Administration), highway and public works programs brought the United States out of the Great Depression. Today, we can make sure that clean energy infrastructure projects are a major part of any economic recovery.
The clean energy segment has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. At the start of 2020, the workforce accounted for more than one out of every 50 U.S. workers. Before COVID-19, nearly 3.4 million Americans worked in clean-energy occupations—renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization, clean vehicles and fuels. That represents more people than work in real estate, banking, or agriculture in the U.S., and three times the number that work in fossil fuels. Clean energy jobs had been growing 70% faster than the overall economy from 2015-2019, according to the Clean Jobs America report from E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs). E2, E4TheFuture, and the ACORE (American Council on Renewable Energy) publish monthly unemployment analysis updates.
Clean energy has been one of the U.S. economy’s biggest and fastest-growing employment sectors over the past decade, growing 10.4% since 2015 to nearly 3.4 million at the end of 2019. Clean Jobs America 2020 found the industry accounted for more than half of the entire energy sector’s job growth in 2019 and has added jobs 70% faster than the overall economy the last five years. That makes clean energy the biggest employer of workers in energy occupations, employing nearly three times more workers than the fossil fuel industry.
But all that growth came to a screeching halt in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. The 620,000 layoffs across every U.S. state are a testament to the size and scope of the industry and how badly the clean energy industry has been hit and will continue to be impacted by the crisis until Congress and the Trump administration take quick and substantive action. The losses wipe out all the job gains in renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and other clean energy sectors since 2015, according to an analysis of unemployment data by BW Research for E2.
Energy efficiency workers lost their jobs after being shut out of homes and buildings; solar and wind turbine companies furloughed workers after panels and parts got stranded in shut-down factories; factory workers were let go as assembly lines for ENERGYSTAR appliances and clean vehicles went dark.
As the U.S. economy began to reopen in June, some employees returned to work in the clean energy sector. About 106,300 jobs were added back to the economy by clean-energy companies, according to the analysis by BW Research, leaving over half-a-million clean energy workers (514,200) out of work since March. In all, clean energy employment is still down 15% from the start of the year.
While the June jobs improvement is an encouraging sign of clean energy’s ability to quickly put Americans back to work, full-employment remains unlikely without direct action by Congress. Only one out of every six clean energy jobs lost since March returned in June, and as federal PPP (paycheck protection program) funds are exhausted and states are forced to close businesses again in the face of COVID-19’s resurgence, more layoffs could be imminent without congressional action.
Statistics show some short-term improvement as some clean-energy workers returned to their jobs in the weeks following Memorial Day, as states largely reopened their economies. Then the curve changed direction once again and most states are now pausing or reversing their reopening plans. As the country reevaluates reopening and the PPP funding comes up for renewal, Congress returns to partisanship bickering on what should be done. Meanwhile, other issues, including a sharp increase in permanent job losses, rising initial weekly unemployment claims, and COVID-19 cases spiking in states with some of the largest clean energy workforces, add to the pressure.
Energy efficiency, the largest clean energy sector, continues to suffer from 360,000 job losses impacting a full 15% of its workforce. Renewable electric power generation saw a 3.5% rise in employment, with nearly 17,300 jobs regained in June. A total of 82,400 renewable electric power generation workers (14% of the sector’s workforce) remain unemployed due to the pandemic.
Clean fuels and clean transmission, distribution, and storage saw smaller rebounds in June, gaining 2,400 and 4,600 jobs, respectively. The complete impact of the pandemic on clean fuels and clean transmission, distribution, and storage totals 38,200 and 22,800 lost jobs from their respective, pre-pandemic employment levels. Clean fuels jobs have dropped more than 10% since March, while clean transmission, distribution, and storage jobs have dropped nearly 16% thus far.
Clean vehicles added back less than 5% of its workforce, or 10,300 jobs in June. The clean vehicles sector continues to experience a nearly 15% decline in jobs over its pre-COVID-19 employment levels. This translates to 38,200 ongoing job losses.
The clean energy sector is nationwide, and the impact of COVID-19 has been felt everywhere. In June, California had the largest increase, with 5% of its clean energy workforce or 19,800 jobs returning. Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida each added nearly 6,000 clean energy jobs in June. Alaska, Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Montana saw the smallest growth, all with less than 250 jobs gained over the past month. However, the data does not include workers who had their hours slashed and are now significantly underemployed.
Clean energy is, and must be, the future of American industry and the country’s success. Climate change concerns have been placed on the backburner with the COVID-9 pandemic raging, but they haven’t gone away. Planning for the future was never more important than it is today.
Want to tweet about this article? Use hashtags #construction #sustainability #futureofwork #infrastructure