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US regains half the clean energy sector jobs pandemic destroyed

20 April 2021 Keiron Greenhalgh

About half the US clean energy industry jobs lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 had been regained by the end of the year, as wind energy and clean vehicle manufacturing employment drove the recovery, according to a study released 19 April.

The study came out the same day as US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm took part in a webinar sponsored by labor organizations to emphasize the job creation potential of the American Jobs Plan, its investment impact in clean energy technologies, and their role in reducing GHG emissions.

On 22 April, Earth Day, GHG emissions will again be the focus of the administration at the Leaders Climate Summit convened by President Joe Biden.

According to the E2 study based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics and interviews with business owners, the clean energy sector finished 2020 with about 3 million employees, compared with 3.36 million a year earlier. That loss of more than 300,000 jobs compares with some 600,000 workers from the sector who were seeking unemployment benefit at the height of the pandemic's impact, the data show.

The 3 million total is still larger than the number of people employed as middle or elementary school teachers in the US, according to Bob Keefe, executive director, E2, which is a nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors, and professionals. It is also nearly three times as many as work in fossil fuel extraction and generation, he said.

US clean energy job numbers rose about 11% since unemployment due to the pandemic peaked in May 2020, compared with less than 9% in the overall US workforce in the same period, according to the study.

Clean vehicle manufacturing jobs rose nearly 3% to 273,630 in 2020 as automakers increasingly shifted to cleaner and more efficient electric cars, trucks, and buses. Electric and hybrid electric vehicle employment grew more than 6%, adding over 12,000 new jobs in 2020, the biggest increase of any clean energy category, according to the study.

Many of those jobs were new jobs, rather than rehires, especially in the supply chain sector, Phil Jordan, principal, BW Research, told attendees of a press conference announcing the study. BW Research collected and analyzed the data for the study.

Energy efficiency takes the biggest hit

However, energy efficiency jobs saw the biggest drop, declining about 11% to 2,107,174 in 2020 as workers were prevented from entering homes and offices because of pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Energy efficiency, for all the focus on and hype for other segments of the industry, is the biggest job provider in the clean energy sector. The segment employs workers in occupations such as construction laborers, electricians, and heating and cooling technicians, as well as factory workers producing Energy Star appliances and energy-efficient lighting and building materials.

The clean energy sector in 2020 accounted for 2.2% of total US employment, including 19% of all construction jobs, over 5% of jobs in wholesale trade, and more than 4% of all manufacturing jobs, the data show.

"Clean energy is not just good for our planet, it is a boon for our economy," said David Turk, deputy secretary, US Department of Energy (DOE), said on the call announcing the study.

Eight states were home to more than 100,000 clean energy workers at the end of 2020, E2 said. Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Michigan saw the fastest clean energy job growth after unemployment peaked in May, with all four seeing growth of more than 20% from June through the end of 2020, it added.

The shift is not just about quantity though, it is about quality, said Turk, adding there was a moral imperative to make sure that such jobs were spread widely across the US, including to communities with high concentrations of people of color and low income.

'Red, white, and blue jobs'

If members of Congress want good-paying jobs for their districts, then they need to support the policies of Biden in the halls and committee rooms of Capitol Hill, said Keefe. Such jobs are "not red state jobs, not blue state jobs; they're red, white, and blue jobs," he said.

That theme was also explored at the 19 April webinar, where Biden administration officials and union representatives sought to push Biden's American Jobs Plan and its clean energy components as a path to middle-class jobs in communities of color and others facing widespread poverty.

The American Jobs Plan will allow the US to deploy the technology it has now to reach the clean energy and electrification goals set by the Biden administration, Granholm told Ernest Moniz, who was energy secretary between 2013 and 2017, during the webinar hosted by the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) and the AFL-CIO federation of unions. Moniz founded and heads EFI, a nonprofit that hopes to advance solutions to climate change.

"I am so impatient. My hair is on fire," when it comes to getting the investment in clean energy sector and projects built, said Granholm, while admitting that generation facilities, industrial site reclamation, critical mineral mines, and factories for building wind farms or solar panels all take time to bring to fruition.

No man left behind

Granholm -- as had Turk -- stressed that low income and industrial communities could not be left behind, saying it was foolish to say people should just move on if an industry or a US facility in a particular industry became uncompetitive or uneconomic.

The American Jobs Plan is a commitment to coal communities and others that have seemed to have been left behind, she said.

DOE has completed a study on improving the future for coal communities, including investment that will support jobs, and it will be released shortly, Granholm said, adding that the exact date of the study's release was currently unclear.

Many of the coal-centric communities -- where there are few other middle-class, well-paying, unionized positions -- need support, are rural and want the help the American Jobs Plan offers, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told Moniz during the webinar.

According to data from the Housing Assistance Council, a US nonprofit, rural areas represent 86% of persistent poverty counties in the US. As Congress and the Biden administration explore policy solutions to turn around "a pandemic crippled economy, it is imperative that solutions target rural places," World Resources Institute (WRI) argued in analysis released 19 April.

About 1 in 10 clean energy jobs are in rural counties, according to WRI. Of the 139 counties where clean energy employment represents more than 5% of total county jobs, two-thirds are rural as opposed to urban, it said. There are also 18 rural counties (and seven urban counties) where clean energy jobs account for more than 10% of total employment, it added.

However, clean energy jobs are outpaced by employment in extractive industries in rural counties of states, especially those that produce coal.

There is still a long way to go in regaining the jobs lost to the pandemic as well as the momentum lost for energy jobs, said Jordan.

As a result, Congress can do more to boost job totals in the sector, according to the E2 study, recommending lawmakers in Washington:

  • Pass and fund legislation to create a national car-charging network, expand building efficiency improvements, and modernize the electric grid;
  • Extend, expand, and improve accessibility to federal tax incentives for energy efficiency, wind, solar, energy storage, and zero-emission vehicles;
  • Make federal investments in clean energy, vehicle and battery storage, energy efficiency, and regenerative and low-carbon agriculture;
  • Increase funding for existing programs and pass new programs to create new employment opportunities, improve equity, and meet the workforce requirements of a better, cleaner economy, and;
  • Facilitate and leverage privately financed clean energy projects and improve equity.

Posted 20 April 2021 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Editor, Energy and Natural Resources Group, IHS Markit

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