The U.S. wind and solar power industries have emerged as key job creators in recent years, and both industries are scrambling to shield their workers from the economic havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, federal policymakers have not prioritized green jobs, at least not yet. Nevertheless, several states have stepped in to take action that could help reduce the impact and position renewable energy for rapid recovery.
The COVID-19 crisis has added a new level of life-or-death urgency to the global decarbonization effort. Evidence is mounting that groups disproportionately impacted by pollution — specifically, low income communities and communities of color — are at higher risk of death from the novel coronavirus. And, they are more likely to be co-located with sources of pollution including power plants, refineries, landfills and highways.
The hard evidence is incomplete, but so far the available data shows that African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans face a significantly higher risk of death than Caucasians from COVID-19 in the U.S.
Researchers at Harvard University have also linked exposure to pollution with a higher risk of death from COVID-19, and Scientific American cites other studies noting significant racial and economic disparities linked to increased exposure to environmental hazards.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has called attention to the need to support clean technology workers during the crisis, and take steps to rebuild the nation’s roster of green jobs as quickly as possible.
On a state-by-state basis, some of those steps are already under way.
Renewables-friendly Massachusetts, for example, was already acting to increase green job opportunities before the COVID-19 crisis hit in force, partly with job-creating grants to local governments through its existing “Green Communities” program.
On April 15, as the outbreak took a grip across the nation, the state doubled the capacity of its solar incentive program to a total of 3,200 megawatts. The update also provides more leeway for projects in low-income communities.
Another example is New York State, which has paused all non-essential clean energy work under the state’s COVID-19 shutdown, but has extended the completion deadline for projects under its NY-Sun solar affordability program.
Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Energy is also working to support green jobs during the crisis. Last fall the agency redesigned and restarted an Obama-era program aimed at establishing access to community solar power for every household by 2025. The program is currently moving forward with an informational webinar scheduled for today.
So far, the full impact of green job losses has struck mainly at the smaller end of the clean technology scale, as property owners cancel or stall rooftop solar, weatherization and other energy improvements on buildings. Those jobs may be expected to return as stay-at-home orders are lifted and the economy recovers.
In contrast, job losses in the fossil fuel sector may be permanent. Large scale wind and solar projects in the U.S. are expected to continue without significant delays, adding more clean power to the grid and squeezing coal and gas aside.
The potential for greening the energy workforce was outlined by Bloomberg columnist Liam Denning on March 20. The U.S. coal industry was already on the ropes years before the COVID-19 outbreak, and Denning notes that the oil and gas industry also began losing “easy access” to capital before the virus struck.
He foresees that a recovery in the oil and gas sector will involve trimming payrolls down to the bone. Moreover, many jobs will be concentrated geographically, where extraction activities take place.
In contrast, Denning makes the case for the Green New Deal model, in which construction jobs related to electrification, energy efficiency and renewable energy are distributed all across the country.
“In broad terms, one side of the energy industry busies itself primarily with digging stuff out of the ground while the other concerns itself more with planting stuff in the ground,” he explains. “If one result of COVID-19 is that America finally gets around to infrastructure week, then the latter should enjoy a working advantage.”
Denning cites utilities as natural allies in the push for green jobs. Replacing fossil fuels with clean electricity in buildings and cars is a plus for the power generation business.
There are other key partners as well, in the form of corporate support for clean power. Business sector interest in renewable energy predates the COVID-19 outbreak and has accelerated in recent years. If anything, the outbreak has demonstrated that ESG investing — including clean power — is a powerful bottom line tool for weathering a crisis as well as growing a sustainable business.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) controls the flow of federal legislation, so the prospects for a federal green jobs program are still months away at best. In the meantime, business leaders can work with state-level officials to help displaced workers financially while they sustain the decarbonization trend as the nation picks up the pieces after COVID-19.
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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.