By Laura Shields
Several states have pursued legislation designed to expand the number of clean energy jobs, including legislation that creates new requirements or funding mechanisms for expanding the already-growing clean energy workforce.
However, COVID-19 is bringing many of these clean energy jobs to a halt.
Last year, Maryland enacted the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which, in addition to increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standards (RPS), provided funding to support existing minority, women, and veteran-owned clean energy businesses and train a new skilled workforce through apprenticeship programs.
States have taken up similar legislation in 2020, with the Virginia legislature passing its own Clean Economy Act in March. The bill, among other requirements, creates a funding mechanism for job training programs in disadvantaged communities and requires state regulators to consider how new programs and renewable energy facility placements benefit local- and coal-transition workers.
As more coal plants retire, state legislatures are exploring ways to assist workers in finding new jobs or providing retraining for other positions. Both Minnesota and Illinois are considering legislation that would similarly prioritize developing the local workforce in addition to job assistance as workers transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy resources. While state legislatures are signaling a continued interest in legislation that provides a framework for a strong and viable clean energy economy, COVID-19 is putting work in some advanced energy sectors on pause.
Virtually every sector of the U.S. economy has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and clean energy industries including solar, wind and energy efficiency are no exception. An analysis of March unemployment data released by BW Research Partnership and E2 shows the U.S. clean energy industry has already lost over 106,000 jobs and anticipates significant longer-term job losses as the pandemic persists. The Solar Energy Industry Association projects 50% of the 250,000 U.S. solar industry jobs could be lost due to COVID-19.
The U.S. wind sector is also anticipating job losses. Despite reporting a strong first quarter in 2020 with robust installation and construction activity, the American Wind Energy Association anticipates the virus will jeopardize wind energy projects worth tens of billions in investments that promised to deliver billions in state and local revenues to the nation’s rural communities and represented roughly 35,000 U.S. jobs.
The energy efficiency sector is also taking a hit, with the National Association for State and Community Services Programs reporting that at least 20 states halted efficiency improvements under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income homes in response to COVID-19.
Businesses focused on making on-site home or residential building energy efficiency improvements reported their work has come to an abrupt halt and the analysis by BW Research Partnership and E2 shows that the U.S. efficiency sector was the hardest hit clean energy sector in March, with job losses of almost 3%. However, there are some signs that parts of the energy efficiency sector are beginning to adopt new practices like “virtual energy audits,” allowing their employees to continue working while fostering increased customer engagement that could remain in place post-pandemic.
While the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the clean energy sector remains unclear, it presents an unforeseen obstacle that could make state implementation of ambitious targets and programs as laid out in recently enacted legislation more challenging.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and state responses evolve, NCSL’s energy program will continue to monitor relevant state energy policy developments and legislative actions. For information about the latest state actions halting utility shut-offs, check out the energy program’s COVID-19: States Protect Access to Vital Energy Services blog. You can also view NCSL’s COVID-19: Critical Energy Infrastructure Webinar for a summary of some recent COVID-19-related state actions relevant to the energy sector.
Laura Shields is a policy associate in NCSL’s Energy Program.