The U.S. renewable energy industry is reeling from the new coronavirus pandemic, which has delayed construction and sowed doubts about major projects on the drawing board. As many as 120,000 jobs in solar and 35,000 in wind could be lost, trade groups say.
Leaders are confident the future is bright. But the worldwide slowdown is delaying a transition to cleaner energy that scientists say is not happening quickly enough to curtail climate change.
Even as some states move toward reopening, executives fear diminished incomes and work disrupted by layoffs and social distancing will do lasting damage.
The wind industry is plagued by slowdowns in obtaining parts from overseas, getting them to job sites and constructing new turbines.
Residential solar business has been hit especially hard, with door-to-door sales no longer feasible and potential customers watching their wallets. Deals with commercial buyers also have slumped. Social distancing requirements make it hard to place solar panels on rooftops.
New solar installations could be 17% lower worldwide than expected this year and wind turbine manufacturing could fall up to 20%, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
The slump comes as renewable energy was on “a tremendous roll,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.
Fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal remain the leading providers of the nation’s electricity, along with nuclear power. But renewable sources — wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal — have jumped in the last decade. They produced nearly one-fifth of U.S. power last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The agency predicts renewable energy, despite recent setbacks, will grow 11% this year — an indication of the sector’s strong surge before the economy tanked. Meanwhile, coal-fired power is expected to decline 20% and gas generation to grow just 1%.
The wind and solar industries have asked Congress and federal agencies for help, including an extension of their four-year deadlines for completing projects without losing tax benefits. Similar assistance was granted during the 2008-09 recession.
The renewable energy industry’s health is crucial to improving the climate and to a strong economic recovery, said Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.
“These businesses, these workers deserve immediate relief,” Davis said.