When a bill that called for half of Maryland’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030 became law last year, advocates predicted that there would be as many as 20,000 new Maryland jobs through 2028.
Then the pandemic hit.
The clean energy industry has lost more than 620,000 jobs, or 18% of its workforce, nationwide since the pandemic, according to a report by BW Research published on June 15. In May alone, 27,000 clean energy jobs were lost.
“There were folks who were uncertain about where they would be and if they would still be living in their homes,” said David Murray, the executive director of Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “The sales pipeline just stopped.”
Maryland has lost more than 12,000 clean energy jobs since March, according to the BW report. About 80% of these jobs were related to energy efficiency.
Most of Maryland’s energy efficiency employment involves someone physically going inside family homes to install new energy-efficient technology or upgrade appliances. This can range from setting up traditional HVAC to geothermal heat pumps and energy efficient lighting. “These are very labor intensive work,” said Steven Hershkowitz, Maryland Director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
The pandemic and social distancing rules made it challenging to go into homes. Even when installers could socially distance and wear protective gear, people are hesitant to let a stranger enter their house.
Meetings with homeowners can be done over Zoom, but home energy audits, which are required before any installation, must be done inside the home. An energy auditor needs to check all rooms and windows and crawl into attic spaces to be able to create an accurate master plan for the homeowner.
The ripple effect has been dramatic, according to Joe Normandy, executive director of Maryland Building Performance Association, an energy efficiency trade association. As business dropped steeply, suppliers who make a living selling installation parts had almost no buyers.
“It never really came to a screeching stop. There is still some limping going on,” Normandy said. “But still, you have all these great employees laid off and furloughed. We are going to have to take time to train employees and get them accustomed to how we are going to do business now.”
Despite these setbacks, Normandy is confident that the energy efficiency industry will quickly adapt to new safety rules. As Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) moves Maryland further into stage 2 of his reopening plan, the energy efficiency industry is adjusting to include additional protection standards such as calling customers in advance to ask about their health, wearing protection gear and cleaning surfaces after installations, Normandy said.
With more people at home running air conditioners on full blast, clean energy employers and advocates are optimistic that they will start to see more families upgrade to energy efficient technology.
What about renewable energy jobs?
Renewable electric power generation was also hit hard by the pandemic. About 100,000 jobs in renewable energy have been lost nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the report.
Solar Energy Industries Association found that the majority of renewable energy job losses came from the solar energy industry. In Maryland alone, 2,800 solar energy jobs were lost, which is 55% of Maryland’s solar workforce, according to SEIA.
Maryland’s Clean Energy Jobs Act, enacted last year, requires utilities in the state to subsidize solar and wind farms. It mandates that half the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030.
The industry was on a good trajectory before the pandemic hit, Murray said.
“We sell solar over the kitchen table,” Murray said. “But when you cannot get across the kitchen table and are on Zoom, it is much more challenging to make the case for renewable energy.” Families are hesitant to make major investments in solar installation and close the deal when the economy is so uncertain.
Obtaining permits for solar projects is also a difficult and lengthy process. During the pandemic, many local counties have not been able to inspect and permit various solar projects, leading to further delays, Murray said. That risks losing customers.
“Solar will be cheaper if we streamlined the permit and inspection process,” Murray said. He thinks virtual, online permits would expedite the solar project approval process and get more people working on the ground faster.
For larger utility-scale solar projects, typically all that is left to do before construction is to get a permit from the local county, said Cyrus Tashakkori, president of Open Road Renewables and chairman of Maryland’s Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition.
Maryland has 45 large-scale solar projects under study. But many of those will face delays due to the convoluted and complex overlap of Maryland’s state and local permitting regimes, Tashakkori said.
“If we can expedite permitting, we can be hiring,” Tashakkori said. All 45 solar projects would create direct employment of around 3,000 Marylanders over the next 24 months.
Opportunity to ‘build back better’
To address the loss of more than 12,000 clean energy jobs in Maryland, a statewide virtual permitting system for solar projects to get more projects up and running also would create more job opportunities, Hershkowitz said.
Solar and wind companies have been asking Congress for relief. “Thousands of solar workers are being laid off each week, but with swift action from Congress, we know that solar can be a crucial part of our economic recovery,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of SEIA.
U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) joined 180 lawmakers in requesting economic relief for the clean energy industry on June 15.
Others see this as an opportunity to build back better. “As we look towards the federal and state government for stimulus dollars, we have an opportunity to build back better, electrifying buildings and moving away from fossil fuels towards a cleaner energy economy,” said David Smedick of Sierra Club Maryland.