The Battle Over ‘Clean Energy’ Estimates
Electricity pylons and wind turbines are silhouetted at the Scottish Power-owned Dun Law West wind farm near Edinburgh, Scotland January 8, 2010. REUTERS/David Moir

With 17% of US energy jobs gone in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent industry report suggests that over half a million ‘clean energy’ workers are unemployed despite nationwide efforts to jumpstart the economy.

Released by BW Research in partnership with E2 and E4TheFuture, the research maps out the economic impact of the novel coronavirus on clean energy industries and recommends that congress incentivize job creation through “federal stimulus investments in three major sectors of the clean energy economy: Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, and Grid Modernization.”

Congress is expected to take on proposals for the next stimulus package this week when it returns from recess. And because the Republicans only control 53 Senate seats, it will take bipartisan support to push the stimulus out before the summer recess on Aug. 10.

According to estimates, nearly 3.4 million American workers are employed across the clean energy sector, which includes energy efficiency, renewables, clean vehicles and fuels, and other clean energy sectors. It was not immediately clear whether the analysis counted biomass and biofuels—considered dirtier than coal—as clean energy.

The research points out that the new nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases could potentially reverse the gains made in June, when the phased opening of the economy began. “This will put immediate pressure on clean energy jobs and will blunt future potential recovery,” the analysis suggests.

Set against the backdrop of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the authors voice concerns “over the remaining high level of unemployment in the (clean energy) sector and by several underlying trends.” The report paints a sobering picture, saying it is unlikely for the sector—one of the nation’s largest employment areas—to make a robust comeback anytime soon.

“Only one out of every six clean energy jobs lost since March returned in June, and as federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds are exhausted and states are forced to close businesses again in the face of COVID-19’s resurgence, more layoffs could be imminent without congressional action,” the authors of the report maintain.

The authors of the report estimate that “as many as 2.3 million clean energy workers are employed by small businesses that received Paycheck Protection Program loans. As most of those funds have been exhausted on salaries over the last few months, we anticipate increasing layoffs at small clean energy businesses over the coming months.”

Providing a sector-wide breakdown of job figures, the analysis estimates 360,000 job losses across the energy efficiency sector equaling 15% of the workforce. Also because of the pandemic, 82,400 renewable electric power generation workers (14 percent of the sector’s workforce) are currently out of job market. “Clean fuels jobs have dropped more than 10 percent since March, while clean transmission, distribution, and storage jobs have dropped nearly 16 percent thus far.”

Talking to The Real News, BW Research Vice President Philip Jordan clarified that their analysis includes biomass and bioenergy (such as corn ethanol) in the clean energy category. He also counted solar, wind, geothermal, smart grids, hydrogen fuel cells, and Energy Star appliances as part of the ‘clean energy industry’ described in the research.

When asked about the size of the biofuel industry compared to other clean energy categories, Jordan estimated around 160,000 nationwide jobs.

Asked what sort of congressional actions were favored by the analysis, Jordan mentioned energy efficiency, weatherization, and retrofitting buildings such as schools; state-funded programs to cover the cost of installation measures, smart grids and smart metering for better load management; and electric vehicle charging upgrades.

“The focus of the stimulus package is on disaster relief and mitigation through measures such as paycheck protection, which was the right thing for the workers and businesses. Rather than spending $600 [billion] on paycheck protection to keep employees home, we can invest in buildings which are vacant. We can invest in modern energy infrastructure, healthier buildings, offshore wind and shift focus from disaster relief to job creation,” he added. Besides advocating tax credits for renewable energy, Jordan emphasized creating skills development programs to transition fossil fuels workers to the clean energy industry.

But some advocacy groups are concerned that the biofuel industry—which uses non-fossil fuel biological materials from sources such as forestry industries, algae, crops, and landfills—will be given a free ride in the name of clean energy. Legislation such as HR 2, and in this case the GREEN Act bill within it, supports incentives for biofuel.

Laura Haight, the U.S. Policy Director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, an organization working on climate and energy issues, has called HR 2 a “marker bill” which misses the mark on climate change. A “marker bill” is a Washington, DC, term of art for legislation that will likely not pass in its current form and sets the stage for inclusion in potential future legislative or budgetary negotiations.

She called HR 2 “dead in the water” because it will likely not pass through the Republican-controlled Senate or make it to President Donald Trump’s desk. HR 2 includes biomass and garbage incineration in its definition of “clean energy,” two forms of energy conversion that PFPI opposes.

“They’re too broad and they’re willing to settle for some of these vague definitions in the hopes that other aspects, like cumulative impacts or process objectives get in there, in the hopes that you live to fight another day and maybe in the rule-making process you might win,” Haight explained further. “But you don’t win. You really need to have better laws.”

“That’s why I’m frustrated. If you’re not even talking about legislation that’s going to pass, why not go for something stronger? Why not really set out your markers in a much more ambitious way?”

Many groups supportive of HR 2 expressed concern over the inclusion of biomass within the legislation. The groups wrote in a letter to congressional members that they “continue to have concerns about support for energy sources, including the burning of biomass or municipal solid waste, that have a detrimental effect on our climate and public health.” Climate scientists have expressed grave concerns about biomass’ categorization as “carbon neutral,” a definition the Trump administration also supports.

With additional reporting from TRNN climate reporter Steve Horn.

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Climate Change Reporter (former)

Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.