Author:  Alex Brown           Published: 5/19/2020           Stateline

Stateline May19

Gen Nashimoto of Luminalt installs solar panels in Hayward, California, late last month. The pandemic has devastated the clean energy workforce, including solar installers, but experts say renewables still have a bright future.Ben Margot/The Associated Press

Late in April, Warren Leon convened a meeting of leaders from around the country who are overseeing their states’ transitions to clean energy. He feared the group — 14 states plus the District of Columbia that have committed to 100% clean power goals — would have had its ambitions set back by the ongoing pandemic.

“I thought some states might say, ‘Everything’s on hold; we can’t really focus on that,’” said Leon, who directs the newly formed 100% Clean Energy Collaborative, a group of state officials sharing information and strategies about renewable and carbon-free electricity. “That didn’t happen. All the states were enthusiastically engaged on the issue and wanting to move forward as fast as possible.”

That optimism was a surprise, given the battering the clean energy industry has taken over the past two months. The pandemic has slashed state budgets, devastated the clean energy workforce and set back many projects. State restrictions have kept many workers at home, especially in fields such as solar installation and energy efficiency that can require home visits.

Some companies have struggled to finalize permits or investments for major projects, with uncertainty looming over both government and the private sector. There also are questions about how the pandemic may reshape the industry.

Energy usage patterns have shifted radically during lockdowns, and lingering changes such as telecommuting may require new strategies to meet altered demands. Meanwhile, disruptions to overseas supply chains have some observers wondering whether domestic manufacturing will need to scale up in the future.

But leaders from California to New York to Washington say the disruption is just a speed bump. In the states that have set firm clean energy targets, utilities, investors and developers have been preparing to meet the demand created by state mandates, and that work isn’t stopping.

“There’s no slowing down, and there’s no backing off,” said Doreen Harris, director of large-scale renewables at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “If anything, the commitment has only been redoubled.”

Story continues after map

Still, the path ahead remains unclear, even if the destination isn’t. Some clean energy advocates are frustrated that the Trump administration is pushing to bail out oil companies, while ignoring pleas to help the renewable sector. Talks of future stimulus plans are politically fraught, and it’s unclear how long it will take for businesses and the workforce to get back to full strength as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

Better Days Ahead

The pandemic has created immense near-term challenges for the renewable energy industry, which had been growing at a rapid pace before the economy ground to a halt. In New York, Harris said, the clean energy industry was growing twice as fast as the economy as a whole.

In the past two months, the industry has lost nearly 600,000 jobs — a 17% employment loss — according to analysis conducted by BW Research. The firm projects that those numbers could soon reach 850,000, or a quarter of the sector’s workforce.

The largest clean energy sector, energy efficiency, has lost more than 400,000 jobs, as financial uncertainties and social distancing guidelines have stalled investments to retrofit buildings and homes. Residential solar installations have nosedived for similar reasons, and some larger projects have been put on hold because of permitting or financing delays.

Meanwhile, delays mean less renewable electricity will be added to the grid in 2020. Projections for new wind and solar capacity have dipped by 26%, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, which arrived at a much higher capacity number, still forecasts a 7% drop from earlier estimates.

Bloomberg’s revised projection — 17 gigawatts of new wind and solar — is “still a very credible, strong year,” according to Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. And the fallout from the pandemic isn’t likely to be a long-term threat to the industry, or to states’ plans to clean up their grids, experts say.

“The demand is still there,” Wetstone said. “The fundamental underlying health of the renewable sector is very strong, and the pieces are in place to continue to drive growth when people can get out and work.”

Many state officials think investments in clean energy could play a huge part in the country’s economic recovery. They point to the 2009 stimulus package passed during the last recession, which provided $90 billion for the industry. That investment paved the way for the rapidly growing, increasingly affordable renewable energy being provided today, several state officials said.

Still, the path ahead remains unclear, even if the destination isn’t. Some clean energy advocates are frustrated that the Trump administration is pushing to bail out oil companies, while ignoring pleas to help the renewable sector. Talks of future stimulus plans are politically fraught, and it’s unclear how long it will take for businesses and the workforce to get back to full strength as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

Better Days Ahead

The pandemic has created immense near-term challenges for the renewable energy industry, which had been growing at a rapid pace before the economy ground to a halt. In New York, Harris said, the clean energy industry was growing twice as fast as the economy as a whole.

In the past two months, the industry has lost nearly 600,000 jobs — a 17% employment loss — according to analysis conducted by BW Research. The firm projects that those numbers could soon reach 850,000, or a quarter of the sector’s workforce.

The largest clean energy sector, energy efficiency, has lost more than 400,000 jobs, as financial uncertainties and social distancing guidelines have stalled investments to retrofit buildings and homes. Residential solar installations have nosedived for similar reasons, and some larger projects have been put on hold because of permitting or financing delays.

Meanwhile, delays mean less renewable electricity will be added to the grid in 2020. Projections for new wind and solar capacity have dipped by 26%, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, which arrived at a much higher capacity number, still forecasts a 7% drop from earlier estimates.

Bloomberg’s revised projection — 17 gigawatts of new wind and solar — is “still a very credible, strong year,” according to Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. And the fallout from the pandemic isn’t likely to be a long-term threat to the industry, or to states’ plans to clean up their grids, experts say.

“The demand is still there,” Wetstone said. “The fundamental underlying health of the renewable sector is very strong, and the pieces are in place to continue to drive growth when people can get out and work.”

Many state officials think investments in clean energy could play a huge part in the country’s economic recovery. They point to the 2009 stimulus package passed during the last recession, which provided $90 billion for the industry. That investment paved the way for the rapidly growing, increasingly affordable renewable energy being provided today, several state officials said.