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Image credit: SunPower

Image credit: SunPower

New research has come to cast a fresh spotlight on the human cost of the COVID-19 crisis for the US clean energy industry, amid claims job losses could reach their hundreds of thousands.

A new review by organisations E2, ACORE, E4TheFuture and BW Research Partnership found that more than 106,000 US clean energy workers filed for unemployment benefits in March 2020 alone, fully obliterating the job gains the entire sector had seen throughout 2019.

According to E2, US clean energy operators began 2020 on a strong footing. Having added 70,000-plus jobs over 2019, the sector started the decade with a cumulative workforce of 3.4 million, vastly surpassing fossil fuel jobs and coming to represent one-in-fifty workers across the entire US economy.

The onset of the COVID-19 crisis – with 639,000-plus currently infected US-wide, the largest national figure anywhere on Earth – brought growth to a standstill in March, sparking layoffs (see table below) among installers, electricians, engineers, factory plants and many others.

US clean energy job losses in March 2020, per segment

SegmentEnergy efficiencyRenewable energyClean vehicles Grid & clean storageClean FuelsAll segments
Job losses in March 202069,80016,50012,3004,300 3,400106,470
Source: E2, ACORE, E4TheFuture and BW Research Partnership

Half a million layoffs possible if 'no action is taken'

According to the report authors, the 106,472 lost jobs of March 2020 may indicate the worst is yet to come. If policymakers take no further action to stem the flow, the US clean energy sector could shed over 500,000 workers in the coming months, or 15% of its nationwide headcount.   

The analysts provided a state-by-state breakdown (see table below) of US clean energy layoffs in March 2020. At 19,949, job losses in California dwarfed those of any other state, with Michigan, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Pennsylvania following with 5,000-plus worker dismissals.

In relative terms, South Dakota, West Virginia, Colorado, Utah, Florida and Georgia managed to shelter their workforces to a greater extent than others. Their February-to-March job losses of 1-1.5% fell well short of the 6% cut seen in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

The layoffs, E2 and the others went to point out, have so far “disproportionately impacted communities that are least able to cope.” For instance, Hispanic and Latino workers represent 14% of the US clean energy sector but accounted for 24% of the job losses in March 2020.

US clean energy job losses in March 2020, per key state

US stateCaliforniaMichiganMassachusettsNorth CarolinaPennsylvania
Job losses in March 202019,949 (3.6%)5,446 (4.1%)5,611 (4.4%)6,800 (5.9%) 6,068 (6.2%)
Source: E2, ACORE, E4TheFuture and BW Research Partnership

Players take hit as PV left out of federal aid package

For US solar, the ultimate impacts of the still-maturing COVID-19 crisis remain unclear, but the effects are already being felt in the short-term.

Various analyses published after lawmakers excluded PV from a major federal aid package have suggested US utility-solar growth could fall by 10%, and see delays for a 2-5GWdc batch. Over in the residential segment, the struggle to carry out sales visits and installs is hitting growth prospects.

California, holding a towering position in the March 2020 job loss rankings, has stood at the centre of a flurry of cost-cutting moves by state-based players. Sunrun, Sungevity and Sunworks are all thought to have resorted to layoffs, with SunPower aiming for savings of US$50 million.

Another California-based residential player, Elon Musk’s Tesla, has been forced to shutter various factories in the state and elsewhere. Over in New York’s buffalo, the solar tile facility it temporarily shuttered last month is now set to become a COVID-19 ventilator factory.

PV Tech has set up a dedicated tracker to map out how the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting solar supply chains worldwide. You can read the latest updates here.

If you have a COVID-19 statement to share or a story on how the pandemic is disrupting a solar business anywhere in the world, do get in touch at jrojo@solarmedia.co.uk or lstoker@solarmedia.co.uk.

Tags: covid-19, coronavirus, us, lsdigital, financedigital, essdigital, usa, north america, residential solar, acore, residential pv

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