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4 reasons clean energy jobs are key to economic recovery

A woman installing solar panels

In two months, 17.8 percent of the clean energy workforce disappeared. And things will get worse before they get better — especially without policy support. 

That’s according to new analysis from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), which calculated 594,300 clean energy workers lost their jobs in March and April. That means we just deleted all of the clean energy jobs created since 2017. And no, this number doesn’t include furloughs or reduced layoffs.

These job losses have been faster and worse than anticipated. In a similar analysis last month, E2 and partners forecast that the United States could see 500,000 jobs lost by the end of June. The experts expect 850,000 job losses in the first half of 2020. That’s 17 times the number of all coal workers in the country. 

At a time when we’re seeing record-smashing unemployment figures in many industries, it’s easy for the terrible news to blur together. But it’s worth considering why clean energy, in particular, is an industry that will support us if we support it. Especially at a time when oil and gas companies are lining up for handouts while Washington’s latest relief package shows no love for renewable energy

Clean energy can put America back to work

In the Before Times, the clean energy sector was setting the curve for workforce development. It was one of the fastest-growing sectors in the country with a 10.4 percent increase in jobs since 2010. At the start of the year, it employed more than 3.3 million Americans. That is to say, once jump-started, the clean energy industry can hold its own. 

Clean energy also has a rising-tide-all-boats element I love. Consider: 

  • Clean energy jobs are distributed. Unlike centralized extraction and generation (*cough* fossil fuels *cough*), every state and most legislative districts already have clean energy jobs. Instead of building up a local economy around one industry, clean energy employees are scattered everywhere, providing economic diversity. 
  • Clean energy is more job dense than fossil fuels. As we look at powering our future, clean energy has far greater potential to provide a livelihood to more individuals than fossil fuels. According to E2’s Clean Jobs America report, in the Before Times, clean energy workers outnumbered fossil fuel works 3-to-1 — despite making up only 10 percent of energy generation. Imagine the potential for jobs as states and utilities work towards their 100 percent clean energy goals. 
  • Clean energy jobs are for everyone. By designing for clean energy, we would create hundreds of thousands of jobs for people at every education level. From construction to manufacturing to investors and engineers, the sector is inclusive. 

In the words of Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, on a press call, "Clean energy can get the most people back to work in the most occupations in the least amount of time. Why wouldn’t we do that?"

The clean energy economy is a good investment

Let’s take a look back. 

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dedicated $90 billion to clean energy (about 10 percent of the stimulus package). That supported the creation of 900,000 clean energy jobs between 2009 and 2015, created hundreds of new companies (including game-changers such as Tesla) and weatherized more than 1 million homes (meaning people spent less on energy during the Great Recession). 

We also learned the sector is hyper-responsive to stimulus money. A report from the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute in 2009 shows that clean energy created roughly 2.8 times the number of jobs as oil and gas on a dollar-by-dollar basis. 

Pollution is part of a much larger negative feedback loop.

And that was before the sector matured. Since then, the cost of solar fell by 85 percent and wind by 49 percent. Wind and solar is now the cheapest form of energy for two-thirds of the world. 

It’s hard to use historical data to project the future for disruptive technologies. Suffice it to say, it stands to reason that stimulus investments made today would go further in both the number of jobs created and the benefits of clean energy. 

Clean energy jobs help vulnerable communities 

Clean energy investments are key to making low-income communities more energy-secure. 

According to the Energy Information Administration, about a third of U.S. households face challenges paying energy bills and are disproportionately Latino or African American. These households spend about 7.2 percent of income on energy — more than twice the national average, despite having smaller homes. 

Clean energy upgrades — such as energy efficiency retrofits or rooftop solar — would be a gift that keeps giving during shaky economic times to disadvantaged communities.

Further, a shift away from dirty energy would address issues of environmental racism. Nothing is more regressive than air pollution. Our transportation systems spiral through poor communities; our dirty energy infrastructure (from coal plants to oil refineries) is next door to those that are already systemically disadvantaged. 

Pollution is part of a much larger negative feedback loop. With higher rates of respiratory issues, more sick days, high medical bills, the cycle of poverty is even tougher to escape. It also increases the risk of death from coronavirus

It’s worth noting that the clean energy sector has a ton of room for improvement when it comes to the diversity of the workforce. In energy efficiency, for example, most workers are male (76 percent) and white (78 percent). Some organizations are working transforming the workforce to look more like the country, such as GRID Alternatives and Green For All. My two cents: stimulus efforts would be well-suited to correct this imbalance.  

Getting clean energy right will make us more resilient and energy secure 

The COVID-19 crisis sure exposed a ton of fragility in our economy and logistics systems, huh? 

This shift in thinking is getting people and companies to think about the importance of resilience on multiple fronts. As the west prepares for another fire season, the south buttons down for hurricanes and the midwest is bracing for biblical flooding, folks are starting to consider what could happen when crises compound. And they don’t want to do it in the dark. 

With clean energy workers hungry for jobs, now seems a unique moment to make our grid, buildings and communities more energy-resilient. We have the labor; we have access; all we need is the capital. 

Another COVID lesson: Inaction is really expensive. 

Prioritizing energy security and resilience has the desired side effect of reducing emissions, which is imperative to slow the larger and slower climate crisis. Every $1 invested in resilience today saves us multifold in the future, perhaps as high as tenfold

It’s no secret that I’ve long been a believer in the clean economy. As we peer over the cliff of this thing called an economy, my convictions have grown stronger. We have an unprecedented opportunity to write a new future. It would be criminal for our path forward not to include robust support for the clean energy industry. 

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter Energy Weekly, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.

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