ST. PAUL — Minnesota's clean energy sector has so far shed 11,500 jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report, three times the number it created since 2017.
That finding, published today by the non-profit Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, comes after years of steady job growth in the sector that at first was expected to continue. Employers in the state had projected it to grow by another 7% in 2020, according to the group, or by about 4,500 jobs.
Instead, they wound up cutting the workforce by 18% industry-wide. Now the clean energy group and others are calling on lawmakers to expand state and federal investments in the industry to preserve what jobs remain and recoup the ones it lost.
"We fully recognize that we’re not alone in feeling the economic effects of COVID-19, but we also know that clean energy businesses are uniquely situated to help re-power the economy," said Clean Energy Economy Group executive director Gregg Mast in a statement. "Minnesota’s sizable clean energy workforce has shown its potential for rapid job creation and economic growth — two things our state is in dire need of."
Social restrictions and consumer uncertainty brought on by the pandemic have resulted in job losses across the state and nation. In Minnesota alone, nearly 800,000 people filed for state unemployment insurance in the time since mid-March, when Gov. Tim Walz declared a statewide peacetime emergency because of the pandemic.
While the restaurant and hospitality sectors were among the hardest hit, the environmental group's report illustrates that the pandemic is affecting even relatively new and less visible industries. Minnesota's clean energy industry cut more energy efficiency jobs than any other kind at roughly 8,500.
Minnesota Electrical Association spokesperson Michelle Dreier said that tracks with the seeming lack of available residential work. Few households are willing to invite electricians in for fear of contracting COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, she said.
"“The industry doesn’t look the same as it did pre-pandemic," she said.
Construction jobs, which according to the clean energy group make up half of those available in the industry, do not appear to have been affected. Speaking by phone Thursday, June 24, Laborer's International Union of North America regional spokesperson Kevin Pranis said members of the union's Minnesota and North Dakota chapter have yet to lose work.
What remains to be seen, Pranis said, is what next year's construction season has in store. The pandemic has already strained the finances of public and private sectors to a point where they are already whether to delay their planned capital projects, he said.
If that happens, "I think it is certainly conceivable that next year will be as bad as 2009," Pranis said.
And even if a substantial number of wind farm and solar panel array projects are scheduled, Pranis said, those tend to require fewer hands on deck than traditional projects.
Clean energy proponents, including LIUNA, said that state and federal investments in their sector may help to sustain employers and workers. But one proposal supported by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, the proposed Energy Conservation and Optimization Act, has all but stalled in the Minnesota Legislature despite bipartisan support for it.
The act, effectively an update of the current Conservation Improvement Program, would let utility companies invest more in energy efficient technology than is currently allowed, among other things. Numerous environmental groups in the state have called for it to be approved.
Lawmakers adjourned their special session last week without taking up the bill, however. Currently, the soonest they are scheduled to reconvene is on July 13, when a procedural session could take place should Walz again extend the emergency declaration.
Still, state Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, the act's prime sponsor in the Minnesota Senate, said it's unlikely the act will be passed any time soon. He said lawmakers will likely focus on passing police reforms proposed following the death of George Floyd as well as a bonding bill, which they have yet to make an agreement on.
If the act isn't taken up again at a special session, Rarick said, the bill would likely be re-introduced next year.