Clean energy group says after loosing more than 600,000 jobs, industry is rebounding

After seeing jobs plunge by more than 600,000 at one point in 2020, the clean energy industry, which had been on a fast incline before the pandemic hit, surged 11% by year’s end, fueling optimism in Colorado and nationally that the trend is up.

Last year was the first time the industry had seen job decreases since 2016, when E2, or Environmental Entrepreneurs, first produced its annual survey of companies across the country, Bob Keefe, executive director of the national business group, said in a call with reporters Monday.

“Like many sectors of our economy, clean energy was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic downturn,” Keefe said. “At one point there were about 600,000 clean energy workers all across the country out of work. Fortunately, there was a bit of a rebound in the second half of the year and we ended the year down about 307,000 clean energy jobs.”

At the end of 2020, more than 3 million people were working in the clean energy industry, which includes work in energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles and low-emission fuels. Keefe said the industry’s job growth is outpacing the overall job growth rate of about 9%.

Colorado’s clean energy industry employed 58,182 at the end of 2020, according to the new E2 report. The state, ranked 18th in terms of employment in the industry, lost 4,238 clean energy jobs for a 6.8% drop. Employment bounced back 6% from June to December last year.

The solar industry in Colorado has regained traction, said Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association.

“We are full strength,” Kruger said. “I expect, when the numbers come out, we’ll be about a thousand folks down, from 7,000 to 6,000 in 2020. I think we’ll be up from that this year, given that all my members are hiring for everything.”

Broomfield-based Photon Brothers, which works on residential and commercial solar projects, is hiring again. John Johnson, a co-owner and senior consultant, said two employees left last year and two were laid off. Those two have been rehired and the company is looking to add more employees, including sales people and installers, to its 80-person staff.

“Fortunately, when we hit lockdown we had a bit of backlog in terms of installations, and we were still able to work during that period,” Johnson said.

But Photon Brothers’ sales dropped and the company came close to having to lay off more people. The company applied for but didn’t receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. The backlog of projects and work with a nonprofit on a Denver solar cooperative kept the company founded by brothers David and Matt Raichart going.

“I think it was at the end of the summer that we started to feel some real momentum,” Johnson said. “We think that it’s just going to continue, especially with the current administration.”

President Joe Biden has made addressing climate change a priority through increasing the use of renewable energy, cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and getting more electric vehicles on the roads. Keefe and other speakers on the conference call by E2 said approval of the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes money for electric vehicles, charging stations, switching buildings from fossil fuels to electricity for heating and cooking and installing more wind and solar power.

And the administration wants to make sure no one is left behind, including women and people of color who are underrepresented in the clean energy sector, said David Turk, deputy secretary of the Department of Energy.

“We also know there are fossil fuel workers out there wondering if there’s a future for them in the clean energy energy future. There are rural communities, declining industrial communities that feel unseen,” Turk said.

The E2 report is based on an analysis by BW Research Partnership of preliminary energy employment data and shows that clean energy jobs are found in every state and 99% of all the cities and counties, said Phil Jordan, vice president of the research firm.

Before the pandemic, the clean energy industry was growing by about 6% annually, the report said. Although clean energy jobs increased in the second half of 2020, Jordan said two-thirds of clean energy businesses employ fewer than 20 people and many businesses have closed during the recession.

“The sector has rebounded better than many in the U.S. from its summertime lows, but there’s still a long way to go,” Jordan said.

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