Blades rotate on ene of six wind turbines near Somerset, Pa. Stagnant growth since the start of the pandemic has left 500,000 workers in the solar and wind energy sectors without a job. File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Before the coronavirus pandemic arrived this year, clean energy was one of fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. But since moderate stages of recovery began, experts say the industry has struggled to find footing.
Just 3,200 jobs returned to the clean energy sector in July, Labor Department data shows.
That 0.1% employment growth has left more than 500,000 workers in fields including energy efficiency, solar and wind energy and clean vehicles without a job, an industry-sponsored analysis by the BW Research Partnership shows.
The last few months have seen a major reversal of fortune for a sector that grew 70% faster than the entire economy between 2015 and 2019 and had been employing three times as many workers as real estate, banking or agriculture.
At July's growth rate, industry leaders say, it will take 15 years to replace the jobs that were wiped away by the pandemic.
The slow rebound can be blamed, they add, on a slate of pandemic-related restrictions and consequences that have combined to affect the industry.
"Out of the 3.2 million people who work in the clean energy field -- or did up until this year -- the vast majority are in the energy efficiency field," Bob Keefe, executive director of the non-partisan advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), told UPI.
"Those are people who go into buildings and do everything from installing insulation in the walls and ceilings to swapping out incandescent lighting for LED lighting.
"When you have a situation where buildings are suddenly off-limits, whether they're skyscrapers in Manhattan or single-family homes in Kansas, it's hard for those energy efficiency workers to get back on the job."
The sudden idling in the industry has brought into focus impressive growth it has experienced in recent years. By late 2018, more than 2.3 million Americans were working the field, and the growth rate was more than 5%, according to last year's U.S. Energy and Employment Report.
In July, however, just 2,100 energy efficiency jobs in the United States returned -- after 15% of the workforce was lost due to COVID-19.
Another reason for the slow rebound is a marked decline in new solar energy panels -- the bread and butter of the solar industry.
Large utility-scale solar and wind power installations -- like a Florida utility's plan to install 30 million new panels statewide by 2030 -- have continued at a diminished but steady pace throughout the pandemic. Small-scale residential projects, though, have dried up.
"People aren't very interested in having solar workers come to their houses ... and having construction workers come in at a time of COVID and quarantines," Keefe said.
Nearly 15% of workers in the renewable electric power sector were still unemployed in July -- or about 82,000 workers.
Industry backers have called for $100 billion in federal funding to recharge the industry, arguing that it would produce $330 billion worth of new economic activity and 860,000 jobs over five years.
Under the proposal, the lion's share of the funding, about $61 billion, would go to the energy efficiency sector to create 737,000 jobs.
Jobs in the fossil fuels industry also have been sacked by COVID-19, but so far have returned at a quicker pace.
The oil and gas industry lost an estimated 118,000 jobs -- 15% of its U.S. workforce -- through July, but has received far more emergency funding from Congress, according to the Energy Policy Tracker database.
The database, which tracks energy funding commitments among G20 nations, says the United States has committed more than $72 billion in 2020 to fossil fuels. Most has been financial assistance for U.S. airlines -- which experts say is a major source of planet-warming carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, less than $30 billion has gone to support clean energy, mainly in the form of grants for public transit agencies, the energy trackers say.
The Labor Department's monthly job report for July showed that although nearly 2 million jobs were added to the U.S. economy, the clean energy sector was not part of the growth.
"These new jobs primarily fall in industries unrelated to clean energy, such as government, food and accommodation and education and health services," the BW Research Partnership analysis said. "While the recent jobs report has some positive news for the economy, it also contains some alarming trends.
"Weekly unemployment claims continue at an historic pace. The most recent week's claims data...showed a slight decline in initial jobless claims, but is still at a level more than 50% higher than any week in our history prior to March.
"At the same time, the long-term unemployment rate -- defined as 27 weeks of consecutive unemployment -- has risen sharply since March."