How Will COVID-19 Impact Clean Energy Progress?

Published May 26, 2020

Renewable energy expert John Rogers is back on the podcast to talk about how COVID-19 is affecting clean energy jobs, and how we can create a stronger, healthier clean energy economy for everyone.

In this episode
  • John highlights the need for us to rebuild stronger, not revert back to "normal"
  • We explore the hit that clean energy jobs are taking during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Colleen and John think through the best ways to get Congress to focus on our renewable energy needs
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:41)
Intro (0:41-2:22)
Interview part 1(2:22-13:15)
Break (13:15-14:17)
Interview part 2 (14:17-24:02)
Sidelining Science throw (24:02-24:07)
Sidelining Science (24:07-26:24)
Outro (26:24-27:30)

Related content
Show credits

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

In mid-May, my home state of Massachusetts announced the first steps in a four-phase plan to reopen certain businesses. Other states began limited reopenings several weeks ago. But even as stay-at-home protections loosen up, the way forward isn’t very clear.

How do people safely return to work? How do we get the economy back on track? And how can we prevent something like this from happening again?

What we prioritize in our recovery will decide the direction of this country for years to come. And as we’ve recently discussed on the podcast, we want to do more than just return to life as it was before the pandemic. We want to move forward and do even better. So today, we’re talking about what that better future could look like, a future where energy is clean and jobs keep growing and growing.

And there’s no one better to talk to about clean energy than my good friend and frequent guest John Rogers, a national expert on clean energy who’s a colleague of mine at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This time we’re talking about the incredible progress renewable energy has made in the past decade, and the role that plays in supporting the economy’s growth. But in the wave of pandemic-related job losses, clean energy was certainly not spared. So as Congress figures out our recovery plan, John explains the role clean energy plays in protecting public health while also supporting people across the socio-economic spectrum.

And for listeners who are committed to a clean energy future, John has some advice for getting Congress to pay attention.

Colleen: John, welcome back to the podcast. It's great to have you back.

John: Great to be with you, Colleen.

Colleen: I want to talk about where we are now with clean energy in the midst of this incredible crisis and where things are headed or should head. But maybe we should start with where we've come from. What sort of progress have we seen in renewable energy in the past decade?

John: Sure, Colleen. And I think that's the sort of thing you and I have tended to talk about on the podcast and that's obviously an easier, happier story. So, let me take you back maybe about 10 years. And it really is the last 10 or 12 years that we've seen so much progress in clean energy, in terms of the costs, in terms of the size of the products, the efficiency, the size of the industries, the market penetration. Maybe I can give you a few examples. If we look at wind power, for example, you look at where we were 10 years ago and where we are now, we get four times as much electricity from wind as we did a decade ago. Wind has grown to more than 7% of our electricity supply. Basically, enough to generate the equivalent of more than 30 million U.S. households' worth of electricity demand. It was the biggest source of new electrical generating capacity in 2019. And a big reason for that, it is often the cheapest option for new electricity generation in many parts of the country. And that's one technology.

If you look at solar, we've seen the costs of residential systems fall by something like 60% over the last decade. Large scale solar is now often the cheapest, even when the projects include batteries. So, thinking about generating power, getting power from solar power after the sun goes down, and we've got enough to supply the equivalent of well over 10 million U.S. households. And, in fact, last year the number of American homes with solar hit 2 million. And that's only a few years after we hit the 1 million mark. So, these are really technologies on the move.

Colleen: So, a quick follow up question. When you say that wind is one of the cheapest, why is that?

John: Well, part of it is there have been improvements in the efficiency of wind turbines. There have been improvements in the scales. We've got taller towers. We've got bigger wind turbines, bigger projects and all that adds up to costs coming down. And it's just we have incredible wind resources in many parts of the country, so if you look and you think about the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Southwest, in particular, there are just incredible resources. And so, when wind is allowed to compete, when a utility company is looking to say, "Okay, where are we going to get our power from?" Wind is often the cheapest option. It's often the one that beats out. It certainly beats out new coal. It can beat out natural gas in a lot of cases. And part of that is understanding that projects like wind, renewable energy projects that have no fuel costs, can know what their costs are going to be. Basically, you know, it's how much is it going to cost to put the thing in the first place and what kind of operations and maintenance costs are we going to have? We don't have to be worrying about what's going to happen with fuel prices. We don't have to include those in the pricing of projects like wind or solar.

Colleen: So, it's pretty straightforward once you're set up and ready to go?

John: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot that goes into it. Don't get me wrong. There is a lot of work that needs to do to get things ready on the ground in terms of connecting to the electricity grids and, you know, getting landowners on board, all that. But the technology itself, the economics of that are just incredibly attractive and becoming more so all the time.

Colleen: So there’ve been a lot of advances in renewable energy technologies. How about energy efficiency?

John: So, we've seen over the last decade, LEDs, you know, those white light-emitting diode lights have really taken the market by storm. We've seen incredible progress in recent decades on refrigerators, on air conditioners, washing machines, all of that has been an important piece of keeping electricity demand flat for years, even as our economy has grown. And I'll say one other piece or another piece of clean energy progress, the clean energy revolution, is what we're seeing in the transportation sector. So, electric vehicles have just been coming on so strong in so many markets. And this stuff keeps getting better. We're constantly making clean energy, more efficient, less expensive, more resilient, harder to pass up.

So, I'll give you a couple of numbers on that. By the end of last year, the wind sector was responsible for creating more than 110,000 jobs in the U.S. Solar, some 250,000 jobs, energy efficiency, more than 2 million jobs. If you add in other renewables, energy storage, electric vehicles, hybrids, you're looking at something like more than 3 million American jobs.

Colleen: So John, how has the growth in the clean energy sector been affected by the pandemic?

John: So, the COVID crisis has certainly hit our economy in a whole range of ways with different impacts for different types of businesses, and that certainly have been true for clean energy jobs too. One category of clean energy jobs is those that involve visiting homes. If you think about engaging directly with the public for energy efficiency, for example, or rooftop solar, if it's not safe to visit, it's a lot harder to do your work. But large scale renewable energy projects like wind firms or big solar arrays have had their own problems. In a lot of cases, projects that were well underway might have been able to continue, or have been able to continue, if they already had their solar panels or their wind turbine parts stored somewhere so that supply chains weren't an issue, for example, and if the workers can safely work on the job site.

But you also have to be thinking about the next set of projects as industry certainly is, issues around supply chains or financing, or given the economic downturn in general, around electricity demand or customers. And, of course, this all affects jobs. A recent analysis of unemployment filings for March and April showed that almost 600,000 clean energy workers had filed for unemployment benefits. And that same analysis projected that the clean energy sector might lose 850,000 jobs by June 30th. That’d mean we will have lost or will have lost one out of every four US clean energy workers jobs that were there are the beginning of 2020. We were set to have banner years for both solar and wind and we will certainly be making progress, but the projections are now that we'll certainly also see lower amounts of solar and wind than we had expected.

Colleen: Right. So, I mean, some states are starting to loosen stay-at-home protections. How that plays out is a big question mark for public health, but also for the economy. What needs to be done to make sure clean energy progress continues and even accelerates?

John: You're right, Colleen. That's a big question mark. That's a huge question mark. And I see this with my wife and her small business trying to figure out when should she reopen? When can she hire her staff back? What does she do about all her fixed costs in the meantime? How does she get the equipment she needs? You can bet that renewable energy, clean energy companies are going through the same thing. The first thing that they have to be thinking about is how to protect workers and customers and really about listening to the science on this. Just because some elected official or governing body has said it's safe to come back, doesn't mean it is. So, figuring out the timing for that, figuring out the proper equipment, you know, the PPEs that we've heard so much about, that's going to apply in a lot more than just frontline health workers.

There's also the economic piece of this. You have to get customers or customers have to get comfortable. There are some indications that people who were thinking of going solar, you know, for their own house, are still thinking about it, are now even more committed. But companies, entering into long-term contracts for solar or wind, have been another big piece of the renewable energy market. And the drivers for that won't have gone away. So, it may just be a question of capacity or capability for those customers in terms of signing deals with wind developers, solar developers, or others. And then there's the policy environment for keeping clean energy moving forward.

Colleen: You set me up for my next question, which is the policy landscape, particularly on the federal level. We know that Congress has a huge role to play, not just in dealing with the public health crisis, but also in getting our economy back on track. What should be included in the next stimulus bill to move us in the right direction?

John: Yeah. Well, I think it's clear that as we wrestle with the COVID crisis, supporting frontline workers, thinking about low-income households who are disproportionately hurt by this crisis and thinking about small businesses that are such an important engine for our economy, have to continue to be the national priorities. As Congress is thinking about getting people safely back to work and getting our economy back on track, it's got to be prioritizing investments in improving public health, in reducing disaster risk, and addressing economic disparities in this country. And clean energy can be a big piece of all of that. It's important to realize that we shouldn't be looking to just put things back the way they were. We should be aiming to recover but not replicate what we had before the COVID crisis. As we rebuild, we can do things better.


Colleen: I don't want to say when things go back to normal because as you just said, we want better than normal. So, what can that look like? Can you give me a few examples about what Congress should do?

John: Sure. And there's a whole lot. In clean energy, we're talking about Congress using tax incentives to keep U.S. renewable energy projects moving, really for protecting and re-igniting its awesome job creation machine. We're talking about Congress investing in modernizing our electricity grid in ways that will enable it to carry us into the coming decades and really let us harness clean energy to the fullest for the benefit of consumers and communities. And we're also talking about Congress investing in helping low-income households with their energy bills. In the short-term, that's going to be about direct bill assistance given what the crisis has meant for incomes and higher energy bills because of families forced to stay home. For the longer-term, think about weatherization, that's about sealing homes, not just to cut energy burdens, but to make them healthier and more comfortable. And remember that energy efficiency is another major job creator.

So, that's sort of one piece of it. If you look at transportation, Congress can be investing in creating jobs and improving public health by investing in electric vehicle deployment. So, these are, you know, thinking about tax credits or rebates, programs for investing in electric buses. So, whether that's school buses or public transit, building out our electric vehicle charging options along highways and in communities and thinking always about equity, about access, about low-income households, and figuring out how do we make sure that they have full participation in these different pieces of progress that are happening? For both clean energy and clean vehicles, it can be about investing in advanced manufacturing right here in the U.S. and creating jobs in the most economically vulnerable areas of the country.

Colleen: What about fossil fuel jobs and the communities that rely on those jobs?

John: Yeah. That's a great question. Because, as you know, I focus a lot on clean energy, but a part of that is what's happening to other pieces in this transition. There's the immediate crisis and the need to protect workers with standards that take COVID into account. But Congress also needs to be soundly rejecting the way that coal companies are trying to get out of their responsibilities for taking care of workers with black lung disease or taking care of abandoned mines. So, this is all part and parcel of what we need to do to move things, move our energy sector in the right direction.

Colleen: So how do we go about making sure that a stimulus bill is strong and includes a lot of these pieces that you've been talking about?

John: I think we need to keep hammering away at the jobs piece of this. Clean energy has been an incredible job creator. I think politicians will respond to that. We need to continue to put that in context, help them see those incredible numbers, help them understand the real need to get that job creation back on track. And I think, you know, one important piece of this, if you look at something like wind power, if you look at something like wind power, 99% of turbines are in rural areas of the country.So if you're thinking about getting people back to work, not just in the cities but in the vast part of the country that's outside the cities, things like wind power can be a real ally for that. And I think we just need to continue to help make our elected leaders understand that.

Colleen: So, when we enter the next phase, and I assume we're going to have to move forward in a staged way. But what are your thoughts about how quickly the clean energy sector can rebound from this crisis?

John: Yeah. That's really tough to say. I gave the example earlier of my wife as a small businessperson and thinking about watching her go through all the pieces that have to come together in order to get her business back on track. So, it's going to depend on small business people across the country making decisions like that. It's going to depend on corporate executives for the larger companies involved in this, it's going to depend on workers making the decision or having the wherewithal to come back to work safely, and it's going to have to depend on customers. But another really important piece for this is thinking about the equity piece of this, thinking about the vulnerable and marginalized people in communities, thinking about African-American, Latino communities that have for so long borne the pollution burden of our power system, of our transportation systems. We really need to be finding ways to prioritize those portions of our society.

Colleen: So, where do you hope we'll be in the next three to five years?

John: Well, it's important to understand that clean energy is continuing to make progress even in this environment. So, this year, we were projecting that renewable energy was going to be 20% of our electricity supply. And I think that seems likely to happen. And in part, that's because of all the stuff we installed during 2019. You know, those wind turbines are still working. Those solar panels are still cranking out electrons. We’re seeing right now, I saw an analysis that looked at across the U.S., across the 48 states, showing that renewable energy has generated more than coal power for 80 days already as of early May. In fact, at that point, it was going 40 days straight, 40 days straight in which we had more electricity from renewable energy than we did from coal power. That's obviously unprecedented in the history of our power system.

In the next three to five years, I mean, we certainly hope that before that, we'll be back on track and that the jobs will have come back and the job creation will be continuing. I think we're going to want to be looking at a pretty aggressive move on ramping up renewable energy, such that, say by 2025, something like 50% of our electricity is coming from low carbon. So, meaning, well, you know, with renewables playing the bulk of that and that leading states are at a much higher level than that, I think. An important metric is going to be seeing how we're doing with equity and making sure that on issues of access, on issues of affordability, on issues of opportunity for people across the socio-economic spectrum, in communities of color, in cities, in rural areas, that we have set up or that we are part of the solution for addressing the inequities that have so long been a part of our society.

Colleen: So the federal government has a role, small businesses and larger companies have a role, what about the states?

John: There is certainly a big role for states. State legislatures are rightly focused on public health and economics right now. But it'll be important for them to keep in mind how much the clean energy can be a help in that push. So, you see states, before this hit, or actually even last month, we had Virginia becoming the 9th or 10th, depending on how you count, state committing to 100% clean energy. So, states like that, leadership states have been so important in driving things forward, particularly where the federal government has fallen short. So, I think we're going to continue to see leading states take charge of pieces of this as they are able. And that's going to be a really important piece of this.

Colleen: What advice would you give to our listeners who are very committed to having a clean energy future?

John: Our strongest push needs to be around Congressional actions. So you know, if you want to weigh in with your Congressional representative of the House and the Senate to make sure that, as they continue to figure out ways to get our economy back on track, they make sure that clean energy, clean transportation, equity, climate preparedness, all these are important, are big pieces of what they come up with. The federal government is really important in all this, but leadership states are going to continue to try to find ways to lead and you really want to support that.

Colleen: Absolutely. John, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today. I look forward to talking to you again in the future.

John: Great to be back with you, Colleen. Thanks very much.

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