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The U.S. Clean Energy Economy: A Decade of Growth, a First Quarter Disrupted

The second Powering Forward webinar, hosted by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Clean Energy Business Network and E2, compared the findings of the 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook to the current and projected impacts on the clean energy economy due to COVID-19.

The Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, released in February 2020, catalogues the long-term trends across the clean energy industries in the United States. The Factbook is used by policymakers, media outlets and the industry to understand the changes underway in the energy sector through facts and data visualizations.

Ethan Zindler, Head of Americas for BloombergNEF and a lead author on the Factbook, joined the Powering Forward webinar to explain the findings.

Ten Years of Growing Momentum for the Clean Energy Industry

It is clear from the Factbook that a clean energy transformation is well underway. The past decade (2010 – 2019), was characterized by rising energy productivity (a comparative measure of economic growth divided by energy consumption), up 17.6% since 2010.

There has also been a dramatic increase in the use of renewable energy and natural gas for power generation, from 34% in 2010 to 53% in 2019 and historically low household spending on energy.  Power sector emissions fell nearly 25% over that decade, with overall emissions falling in the U.S. by 4.1%.

In the “Decade of Clean Energy,” the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors were the growth sectors of the U.S. energy economy. These categories accounted for the majority of new capacity build in recent years and employed nearly 3.4 million Americans (per the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report).

COVID-19 Impacts on Clean Energy Growth

The booming clean energy economy of the 2010s was not spared from the disruptive forces of the public health, social and economic trials of the COVID-19 pandemic towards the end of the first quarter in 2020.  Stay-at-home orders for non-essential workers, designed to curb the transmission of the coronavirus, shut down factories, office buildings and curbed mass transit systems.  As a result, BloombergNEF estimates that overall electricity demand across the continental United States is down 6% (residential demand is up, but commercial/industrial demand is down).

Designation of “essential business” applied to many in the power sector, including utilities and their network of technologies and services needed to keep the “lights on” and critical systems online and operating (first responders and hospitals).  But many segments of the clean energy sector, especially small businesses, directly experienced job losses, supply chain disruptions, project delays and more. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing an unprecedented number of job losses, with over 33 million Americans filing for unemployment in the seven weeks ending on May 2. 

A recent analysis by B&W Research for E2, E4TheFuture and the American Council on Renewable Energy, and released on May 13, found that nearly 600,000 clean energy workers have lost their jobs since March.  That figure represents 17.8% of the industry’s workforce.  By comparison, at the end of 2019, clean energy was on a solid upward growth trajectory of 10.4% (from 2015 to 2019), well above the national rate of employment growth at 6.1%.  It is estimated that these job losses will soon be revised to nearly 850,000 jobs.

Powering Forward for a Return to Clean Energy Job Growth

As the disruptions caused by COVID-19 continue, Congress is working on legislation to provide relief to the effects of the pandemic and to keep the economy afloat.  Both the BCSE and the CEBN are working to identify policy priorities and recommendations for economic stimulus legislation that will help the United States to “build back better,” to a position of increased resilience and sustainability, based on the foundation of a strong clean energy economy.

To learn more, watch the recording of the May 20 webinar and download the presentation here.