Clean Energy Has Struggled During the Current Economic Crisis—but It’s Strong Enough to Recover

Despite job losses and open hostility from the Trump administration, renewables are still poised to lead the way in our country’s recovery.
Wind turbine construction near Mountainair, New Mexico

Jeff Barger/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

This week brought the grim news that the COVID-19 pandemic has so far left 100,000 Americans dead and 40 million out of work. Far too many families are hurting. Far too many are grieving.

Our nation’s clean energy sector hasn’t escaped the fallout. Since March, 600,000 clean energy jobs have been lost—17 percent of the sector’s total workforce. Another 250,000 jobs in the industry are expected to be lost by the end of June.

The slowdown in the production and installation of solar panels, electric-vehicle batteries, and new energy-efficient technologies in homes and businesses has been a major setback for clean energy. But it can’t be allowed to reverse the industry’s gains if we’re to come out on the other side of this crisis more resilient than we were when we went into it.

Naturally, the Trump administration has seized the opportunity to inflict even more damage on the clean energy sector. At a time when tens of millions of individuals and businesses are struggling to make next month’s rent, the administration is suddenly demanding two years’ back rent for the nearly 100 solar, wind, and geothermal projects operating on federal lands. Back in 2018, the Interior Department temporarily suspended rent collection on these projects while it investigated complaints that they were too high. With that investigation concluded, so, too, has the two-year rent holiday: The administration has decided that now—of all times—is the right time to demand that these companies start paying up. Meanwhile, this same administration is advising fossil fuel companies on how to get out of paying what they owe. According to Reuters, these past-due rent bills began arriving “around the same time the Bureau of Land Management notified oil and gas drillers on federal lands of the procedures they would need to follow to get relief from paying royalties amid an oil market slump.”

It’s no surprise that the Trump White House would play favorites by kicking clean energy when it’s down. What is surprising is just how strong and well-positioned clean energy remains despite its poor treatment by the administration—especially vis-à-vis coal, the dirtiest competitor in the energy market.

Over the past decade, coal’s share of U.S. electricity production has fallen from 44.4 percent in 2009 to 23.5 percent last year. One reason: Generating clean power from the wind and sun has gotten much cheaper while generating power from coal hasn’t. Since 2009, the costs associated with wind and solar energy have fallen by 70 percent and 89 percent, respectively. Globally, wind and solar now represent the cheapest way to get new electricity to two-thirds of the world’s population. In the United States, we got a record 9 percent of our electricity from the wind and the sun last year—more than four times what we got just a decade ago.

And all these numbers were poised to rise in a growing economy. In February—the last full month before the pandemic struck—electricity from wind generation was up 27 percent over last year’s levels nationwide and solar power soared 48 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. These increases are part of the reason coal-generated electricity fell by 30 percent.

But then COVID-19 completely upended every aspect of our lives.

So what does it all mean going forward? Clean energy is still the better bet, dollar for dollar, when it comes to powering our economic prosperity and growth. We have to build on its strengths. As my colleague Nathanael Greene, a renewables expert in NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy program, puts it: “Wind and sunlight are free. Furthermore, the cost of building new wind and solar is cheaper now in most places than running existing coal plants and building new gas ones. So all the smart money is still going into clean energy.” That means investing in things like efficiency, wind and solar power, electric vehicles, smart grid technology, and modern energy storage as the foundation for the strong, durable, broad-based recovery we need.

Still, there’s no denying that these sectors have been dealt a huge blow. “The fact that they saw thousands of job losses should be extremely worrying to all of us,” Greene says, adding that the best thing we can do to restore those jobs—and millions of others throughout the economy—is to fight this pandemic effectively. “But there are also important steps Congress can take to help this industry survive and thrive. We should be putting people back to work in jobs that have a future.” Wind and solar are already winning in the marketplace, he says, and energy efficiency can be scaled up without permitting and siting delays; as a result, “these are better investments for economic recovery. They’ve got the momentum that will make our recovery dollars go further.”

That’s what the market itself has been trying to tell us. Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen, this administration isn’t above putting its thumb on the scale in order to keep clean energy down.

It’s not just unfair: It’s unwise. If we want to come out of this stronger than we were before, then investing in clean energy today is one of the best ways to get there. It will pay off tomorrow in more jobs, cleaner air, lower carbon emissions, and cheaper electricity. Because recovery isn’t just about survival. It’s about getting better.

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