According to an analysis by BW Research, the clean energy industry added 106,000 jobs in June, but employment in the sector is still 514,000 jobs below its peak because of the COVID-19 pandemic—a loss of 15 percent. According to the report, and as can be seen from the table below, the vast majority of the fluctuation in these so-called clean energy jobs came in the what the analysis deems the energy efficiency sector. That sector added 72,000 employees to its workforce in June, yet still has lost on net 360,000 from pre-pandemic levels. That represents over 70 percent of the total lost jobs the report logs. The other job categories in the BW Research analysis are renewable electric power generation; clean transmission, distribution, and storage; clean fuels; and clean vehicles. BW Research provided the study for Environmental Entrepreneurs, E4TheFuture and the American Council on Renewable Energy—all advocates of renewable energy.
What explains this enormous drop in energy efficiency jobs? In short, the analysis’s overly broad categorization, which includes HVAC technicians as energy efficiency workers.
The pandemic has caused many office buildings to be closed with employees working from home and much construction in areas of the country to be slowed or stopped, which results in job losses in the construction and HVAC industries. Many of these workers are not currently employed because of less servicing of HVAC systems during the pandemic and less new building construction. Some people have avoided having workers come to their homes unless absolutely necessary during the pandemic, and that includes many trade workers.
While some may view HVAC technicians as clean energy employees, most would interpret their work installing and servicing furnaces and air conditioning units differently. The inclusion of these jobs losses greatly inflates the total clean energy job loss numbers to over a half-million. This may be deceptive to headline readers who would assume clean energy jobs would mean things like solar PV installers or wind turbine technicians.
As a result, using these numbers to emphasize the effects of the coronavirus pandemic upon the clean energy industry is misleading and using them to support increasing or sustaining renewable energy subsidies is dishonest. Renewable energy organizations have been lobbying for extension of tax benefits and other incentives specific to their industry for some time.
Definition of Green Jobs
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines green jobs rather widely—either “jobs in businesses that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources” or as “jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.” These definitions include employment in 1) renewable energy; 2) energy efficiency; 3) pollution reduction and removal, greenhouse gas reduction, and recycling and reuse; 4) natural resources conservation; and 5) environmental compliance, education and training, and public awareness.
The BLS defined and began collecting data for clean energy jobs in fiscal year 2010, during the Obama Administration. In March of 2013, the Obama Administration ordered across-the-board spending cuts as part of the amended Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act. As part of the cuts, BLS eliminated the Green Careers program and the collection of green jobs statistics. The BLS program has not been reinstated because of numerous complaints about the wide scope of the definition of “green jobs,” including counting trash collectors and thrift store employees.
BLS reporting changed when ridicule was heaped upon the “green jobs” numbers, which showed among other things that the Obama-Biden administration counted 33 times as many septic system and porta-potty workers as there were solar utility employees. Obviously, classifying large groups of people already meaningfully employed as a new crop of “Green/Clean” job holders was embarrassing even to the Obama-Biden Administration.
As a result, BW Research did not have a standardized, peer-reviewed definition to use and inflated the numbers by using energy efficiency jobs that may not have anything to do with reducing energy demand, and, in fact, may have had much more to do with simple seasonal changes in employment exacerbated by the economic effects of COVID-19.
Job Losses in the Fossil Energy Industry
BW Research also calculated the number of job losses in the fossil energy industry using data from the electric power generation, fuels, and transmission, distribution, and storage industry—not including energy efficiency and motor vehicles. Electric power generation includes natural gas, oil, and coal technologies. Fuels include natural gas, oil, and coal. Transmission, distribution, and storage includes traditional transmission and distribution of electricity, natural gas, oil, and coal. The study found the job losses in the fossil fuel industry to total 116,754 jobs for March, April, May, and June 2020—a 15.4 percent drop in employment, which does not include many furloughed or underemployed employees.
The study also notes that the fuels component had the most job losses through June, losing about 110,200 jobs (18 percent of pre-COVID-19 employment) with oil losing the most workers at 68,700 jobs (17 percent). Most job losses were in extraction activities. Natural gas and coal employment declined 14 and 13 percent, respectively, since March—representing 36,100 jobs and 12,000 jobs.
Texas had the largest number of layoffs, losing 39,300 jobs or about 14 percent of its fossil fuel workforce; Louisiana lost 12,200 jobs, or 25 percent; Oklahoma lost 18 percent, or 10,600 fossil fuel jobs. Kentucky and Pennsylvania also both lost more than a quarter of their fossil fuel workforce, losing 3,000 jobs and 8,900 jobs, respectively.
This reduction is owing to demand losses from reductions in economic activity due to the coronavirus pandemic and to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, which led to negative prices for oil for the first time in history. As the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, the consequences of this dispute hit the U.S. oil industry very hard, and it is now adjusting.
The study noted that the estimates are conservative and do not reflect underemployment or temporary unemployment. In addition, based on continued oil and gas production declines through June, it is expected that fossil fuel employment will continue to decline through July and will continue to decline through the near future.
Fossil Fuel Jobs Pay More than Solar and Wind Jobs
According to a survey by a group of trade unions, construction workers say they view oil and natural gas jobs as better paying and more reliable on long-term employment than renewable energy jobs. Two reports by North America’s Building Trades Unions, a federation of 14 unions, viewed that entire trades are at risk of becoming obsolete in the proposed government transition to clean energy, as would be the case in Presidential Candidate Joe Biden’s energy and environmental plan. The report also reported that more workers felt there were “better perceived wages, benefits and opportunities” around building pipelines and other oil and gas projects than in jobs tied to renewable energy development.
And, they are correct. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2019, the average annual pay for gas and oil extraction workers was $96,600—twice that for solar panel installers ($46,850) and almost 60 percent higher than the average salary for a wind turbine technician ($61,270).
According to the trade union reports, energy workers believe that oil and gas projects are longer in duration, which leads to more wage stability. They also believe that oil and gas job opportunities are more varied and stimulating than renewable energy work with new technologies often affecting production and refinery operations. The report pointed out that while solar and wind farms require almost no maintenance once built, oil refineries and pipelines require ongoing maintenance, and with that comes jobs.
And, since wind and solar energy production outsources the manufacturing of panels and turbine components to largely foreign sources, the United States, having become energy independent last year for the first time since 1957, risks giving up that long-held goal and its myriad benefits in jobs, economics and national security to products and production line components significantly controlled by the People’s Republic of China.
Lawmakers and the public need to be aware that jobs numbers can be misleading, particularly when peddled by special interest groups, like the renewable energy lobby. In this case, job losses by HVAC technicians are at risk of being exploited to further the push for sustained or increased subsidies for renewable energy. The coronavirus pandemic and the attendant economic shutdowns have caused significant employment losses across many industries, with energy jobs dropping across all sectors by double-digits.