Renewables break records, but where are the jobs?

By David Iaconangelo | 03/16/2021 07:16 AM EDT

Solar and other renewable developers set records for installed capacity last year, but analyses show that renewable workforces have yet to fully recover.

Solar and other renewable developers set records for installed capacity last year, but analyses show that renewable workforces have yet to fully recover. Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Renewable industries are championing record-setting growth, but at least one analysis suggests that many of their employees are still out of a job, underscoring the head winds facing the Biden administration’s clean energy ambitions.

This morning, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) published a report showing record-setting industry growth in 2020. Solar developers brought a record 19.2 gigawatts of power online, 43% more than in 2019. Solar also added more new capacity than any other power source for the second year in a row, the group said.

Solar utility-scale projects thrived during the pandemic, sprouting up at a "historic" rate and accounting for close to three-fourths of the capacity growth, SEIA said. Even residential solar, which came to a standstill during state shutdowns in the first part of 2020, rebounded to grow its capacity by 11%.


"After a slowdown in Q2 due to the pandemic, the solar industry innovated and came roaring back to continue our trajectory as America’s leading source of new energy," said SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper.

A similar picture was presented in last month’s "Sustainable Energy in America Factbook" from BloombergNEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, which found that more U.S. solar power came online in 2020 than ever before. The same was true for the U.S. wind industry, which had its "best year ever," analysts wrote (Energywire, Feb. 18).

Yet BW Research, which tracks renewable jobs, reported last month that wind and solar workforces were victims of the pandemic. The research firm said about 9% of the renewable power workforce — or more than 53,000 workers — was still out of work at the end of 2020.

That "decoupling" of renewable growth and workforce recovery likely resulted from gains in labor efficiency, meaning renewable companies are using fewer, more specialized workers for their installation, said Philip Jordan, vice president of BW Research.

"I’m 100% sure that, in five years, you’ll have fewer workers per.megawatt than you have today. Because we’re consistently increasing labor efficiency," he said in an interview last month.

Residential solar power, often more jobs-intensive than utility-scale solar, was hit harder by pandemic shutdowns in the first part of the year, he noted, and door-to-door sales may have permanently shifted online, taking jobs with it.

"Residential PV is the biggest segment, in terms of jobs, of the renewable sector. How that goes can really influence the overall renewable jobs market," said Jordan.

The idea that renewable industries are doing more with less highlights the complexity of the clean energy push from the Biden administration, which hopes to pair carbon-free power by 2035 with growth in middle-class jobs.

On the campaign trail, Biden singled out the auto industry and buildings sector when laying out goals for clean job growth, targeting 1 million new positions in each. The administration has not released specific jobs targets for wind and solar, despite popular perceptions that turbine and solar panel technicians represent the "green" equivalent of coal miners and oil derrick operators.

In its report this morning, SEIA projected that the country’s solar fleet was on track to quadruple by 2030, in part thanks to the two-year extension of the federal investment tax credit. The quadrupling would propel solar 80% of the way to SEIA’s goal of providing 20% of the nation’s electricity.

Daniel Whitten, SEIA’s vice president of public affairs, acknowledged that the pandemic had resulted "in the loss of a lot of jobs" but said it wasn’t clear that the industry’s overall growth was split from the growth of the workforce.

The BW Research analysis, he noted, didn’t break down how many renewable job losses came from solar rather than wind. And in the latter half of 2020, a boom in construction had actually led to a shortage of skilled positions, such as engineers and electricians.

"We’re still looking into the full impact of COVID on the workforce, more broadly," he said.

State policies for renewables have already illustrated how continued uptake of a given technology doesn’t always translate into steady job growth, said Jordan. In some cases — like in the state of Massachusetts — policymakers swung open the door to renewable developers, who overhired workers at the outset in an attempt to secure a dominant share of the market.

"There’s an imperfect connection" between jobs and installations, he remarked. But new renewable industries like offshore wind, he predicted, would result in "an enormous amount of jobs."

"There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for squeezing [labor] efficiency, but massively increasing capacity," he said. "We’re just scratching the surface."

Wind and Congress

Commissioned by a triad of clean energy advocates — E2, E4TheFuture and the American Council on Renewable Energy — BW Research’s reports on the state of the workforce have served as the basis of campaigns pushing for new federal policies to stoke clean energy growth.

Last week, for example, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), which represents energy efficiency companies as well as natural gas and renewable energy, cited BW Research’s February analysis in a letter to congressional leaders pressing for clean energy-friendly measures as part of an infrastructure bill.

At the start of this year, about 338,500 clean energy workers were still unemployed or furloughed, roughly 10% of the total workforce, according to BW Research’s February analysis. That included over 238,000 jobs in energy efficiency, which has by far the biggest clean energy workforce.

BCSE’s president, Lisa Jacobson, said in an email that her group lacked up-to-date data showing whether energy efficiency deployment had expanded last year. In any case, "I expect that as demand increases post-COVID, employment in these sectors will also increase," she added.

Wind industry representatives struck a similar note yesterday, acknowledging that the industry’s record levels of deployment hadn’t been matched by a recovered workforce, while stressing renewables’ ability to serve as an "economic engine."

"While a record amount of clean energy projects, many of which were already well along in their development process, managed to finish construction in 2020, COVID-19 continues to present challenges to the clean energy workforce, both at utility-scale projects and at the residential level where the job losses have been felt most acutely," said John Hensley, vice president of research and development at the American Clean Power Association, which represents wind developers along with utility-scale solar, storage and transmission companies.