Since January, there’s been a lot of discussion, analysis and 151-proof worry about the COVID virus – understandably.  Viral impacts have produced (in less than six months) the biggest economic implosion since the 1930s, public health lockdowns spanning the planet, and a global death toll of (at this writing) 434,388, with nearly 116,000 of those confirmed deaths in the United States.

As you’d expect, there has also been a certain amount of silver-lining searching.  It’s only natural – as human beings, we look for the lesson, or what we could have done differently or what we might gain in times like these.  And with cars off the road and factories closing down, citizens of cities as remote from one another as Los Angeles, Beijing and New Delhi looked out the window and realized something truly strange was happening – the air was cleaner than it had been in years, even decades.  This four-minute clip from CBS has visuals that I won’t try to convey via keyboard.  For many, the spectacle of suddenly invisible (a.k.a. “normal”) air was startling.

With that kind of obvious impact, the next Big Question didn’t take long to surface:  if substantially shutting down Normal looks like this, what kind of impact is it having on the climate?  The early returns are in, and the answer is – not much.  NOAA reports globally averaged CO2 content of 417.07 ppm (parts per million) for May – up from 414.65 ppm in May 2019 and 411.24 ppm in May 2018.  There’s science behind this lack of change.  Earth, in effect, breathes – this was Charles Keeling’s great discovery in the late 1950s.  Atmospheric CO2 content rises and falls each year, bottoming out in October as most of Earth’s landmass hasn’t yet released carbon dioxide before the northern winter, and peaking in May before northern hemisphere forests have really begun to reabsorb it.  This means that COVID’s clean air aftereffects hit just as seasonal CO2 growth approached its peak.

Early estimates are that pandemic shutdowns led to an 8% drop in anthropogenic CO2 output, and that it would take 20-30% reductions for at least six months to put a dent in atmospheric readings.  As climatologist Katherine Hayhoe notes, imagine all the carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere as a pile of bricks.  We’ve been piling them up for about 250 years, more or less, and cutting a slice from latest brick dropped on top of the pile doesn’t make that much of a difference.  And we’re already seeing a rapid rebound in human CO2 output; “Things have happened very quickly”, in the words of one climatologist tracking current conditions as economic activity ramps back up again.

So if even something as disastrous as COVID can’t substantially alter the pace at which CO2 continues to pile up in the planet’s atmosphere, what will?  And if all the efforts made to clean up our energy act to date haven’t materially changed things, what can?  It would be easy to throw up our hands and assume that this spring’s lack of substantive results represents something permanent.

It doesn’t.

We are at an inflection point in how we produce and use energy and the pace of change is only accelerating.  Coal, the dirtiest source of electricity, is dying in multiple major economies.  June 10th marked 61 straight days that the United Kingdom didn’t generate one kilowatt from coal.  COVID has cut demand, so that and an unusually sunny May are part of the story, but the UK’s power grid has fundamentally changed.  A kilowatt of electricity cost as much as 600 grams of CO2 in 2012 – this spring, as little as 125.  And this took place even as the country’s population grew from 64.5 million in 2012 to 68.9 million this year.  In the US, electric output from all renewables surpassed electricity from coal for the first time since the 1880s, and coal has essentially collapsed as a utility fuel – from a peak in 2008 at around 23 quads (Quadrillion BTUs), it’s now producing around 12 quads, as the graph at the link above powerfully illustrates.

And it isn’t just a question of generating electricity.  Large-scale battery storage, a long-time dream of clean power advocates, is expanding rapidly.  15 small-scale 9.95 MWh systems will support peak generation while smoothing out price spikes in Texas, and the state symbolized by the oil rig is already the nation’s leading wind generator.  In California, PG&E is negotiating 1.7 GWh of storage with the state – more than ten times the power of the Texas sites mentioned above.  Perhaps the single most striking change is the cost of solar energy;  between 1980 and 2012, the cost of solar modules fell by a stunning 97%, and those costs keep dropping, just as solar cell efficiencies climb to as high as 47% in some experimental designs.  Underpinning all of this is a simple, unignorable fact – renewables are now less expensive than fossil energy sources.  Markets are responding – unevenly in some locations, swiftly in others but responding all the same.

The task that remains is immense.  There is considerable doubt whether the goal of limiting further warming to 1.5 degrees C to avoid the worst of potential climate damage can be reached.  There isn’t all that much time left.  Lofty pledges of zero-emission goals by companies and countries by 2050 are fine, but we’ve already used up 1.5% of the time remaining between 2020 and 2050 to achieve those goals.  And yet, for the first time, there now appear to be enough tools on the bench – technological and economic – to let us get started on meaningful work.

So, when we talk about someone employed in “clean energy”, what does that cover?  Like “manufacturing”, many things. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines and tracks employment by sector, but it’s not the most user-friendly resource.  So, while BLS notes that there were nearly 6,000 wind turbine service techs employed in May of 2020, it divides them among five different industries, ranging from utility construction to consulting to local government.  Sadly, a BLS plan to categorize and track clean energy jobs begun in 2010 was abandoned in 2013 during a federal budget shutdown, and has never resumed.

More generally, clean energy jobs fall into four broad categories – energy efficiency (home upgrades or commercial building retrofits); renewables (solar, wind, biogas, or geothermal energy); grid and storage (electrical engineering, battery tech, and charging stations); and cleaner vehicles and fuels (hybrid and electric vehicle manufacturing or biofuel production).  Altogether, more than 3.3 million Americans work in one of these fields, and it’s worth noting that energy efficiency alone employed more than twice as many people as all fossil energy sectors combined.

Like nearly everybody else, clean energy workers have taken a hit in this economy.  About 147,000 jobs were eliminated in March, and April totals nearly tripled that.  More than 590,000 jobs in the sector evaporated by April 30th, two months ahead of projections by BW Research.  The same analysts now expect around ¼ of all green energy jobs to be gone by June 30th, some 850,000 in all.

Under the circumstances, this isn’t surprising.  Homeowners are unlikely to invite insulation crews into their homes in the midst of a pandemic.  Financial chaos means that banks are less likely to lend on large-scale clean energy deployments.  Cities facing budgets collapsing under tax shortfalls are going to emphasize essential services before clean energy buildouts.  And utilities are facing tumbling energy demand.  IEA estimates that from February through April, global demand for energy dropped 6%, the equivalent of all of India.  American energy demand is set to drop 9%, according to the same report.

Whatever the course of economic contraction and recovery, there are certain irreducible advantages to jobs in these industries.  To begin with, they tend to be site-specific.  Many renewable energy jobs are unlikely to be outsourced – those building and maintaining a thermal solar plant in Arizona, for example, are going to build and maintain it in that location for its useful life.  The same holds true for energy efficiency professionals – the homes and buildings in the United States aren’t going to offshore themselves.

Many skilled green energy jobs pay relatively well, can boost stressed economies and don’t require four-year degrees.  Wind turbine techs, for example, exemplify this beneficial clustering.  Wind turbines require regular service and maintenance, and wind farms are located largely in rural areas in the Midwest and southern Plains.  Technicians tend to live in smaller cities or towns near these sites, supporting the local tax base.  Median income for a turbine technician in 2019 was $52,910, which could go a long way in Russell County, Kansas or Alliance, Nebraska.  And training for the field takes one or two years, depending on program and specialization. Median income for solar installers was lower, but in 2019 stood at $44,890 per year, and for insulation crews, median income in 2019 was $44,180,

The issue, at least for now, is that the three specific categories mentioned above don’t employ very many Americans – about 75,000 in all in 2018 and 2019, according to BLS.  But broaden the focus, and green energy’s economic becomes clearer – and bigger.  Wind energy’s total economic footprint alone is already substantial.  In 2018, 530 plants in 43 states produced components – blades, nacelles, turbines, gearing and digital control systems. Outsourcing of some of this manufacturing is possible, but given the size and weight of components as turbines grow taller, is likely to remain largely here at home.  Moreover, the Department of Energy estimates as many as 600,000 jobs in all subsectors of wind energy in less than 30 years.

This kind of job generation potential is what makes remaking America’s energy system so important to inclusive economic recovery.  Utilities, states and cities are already beginning to implement plans to change how we generate and distribute energy in a carbon-constrained world.  These efforts have been patchy and slow, and to date unlikely to meet even minimal Paris Agreement standards.  But under the right circumstances, policy changes, like technological changes, can happen quickly.  Emphasizing the very real benefits of more clean energy jobs may help speed that vital process.

So where, as COVID redefines economies and politics, is the renewable energy sector?  What happens over the next few years – to technologies, investments, deployments and incentives – will determine multiple trajectories.  These include the jobs of millions of people, how quickly carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans, and the possibility of stranded assets hampering any rapid, substantive switch from old to new.

If you’re thinking purely in terms of dollars and cents, the latest issue of Forbes has a fascinating article.  A joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Imperial College London reviewed returns on energy investments starting in 2009.  Combining German and French stock market data, the past five years showed returns of 178% for renewables and -20.7% for fossil energy.  UK renewable stocks returned over 75%, legacy energy 8.8%.  Here at home, where utility-scale renewable buildouts began later than in Europe, renewable returns were north of 200%, while oil, gas and coal stocks didn’t quite double.  Renewable investments proved more stable over the same periods measured.  But the same article notes that the biggest fossil energy shareholders – pension funds – are reluctant to disinvest from dividend-rich stocks.

Beyond that, an ostensible renewable energy transition is up against multiple countervailing factors – for starters $900 billion or more in potential “stranded assets” of global fossil energy companies.  The oil majors have talked a good game for years now, but the numbers don’t bear out their proclaimed commitments to renewables.  Exxon is now in court for, among other things, bragging on its green energy tech while spending less than ½ of 1% of revenues on renewable energy.  In 2019, BP projected spending between 3% and 8% (at best) of capex on renewables, and in February the company dumped an advertising campaign highlighting renewables.  And so on.

American utilities face the same kinds of stranded asset risks, though only 18% of utility employees view sunk costs in infrastructure as a top worry.  But power plants can be ferociously expensive to build.  Evergy’s Iatan 2 project, which went online nearly 10 years ago, came in at nearly $2 billion, with state-of-the-art environmental retrofits of the Iatan 1 plant adding to costs.  It can take large projects like this decades to pay for themselves; securitizing early retirement of fossil fuel plants can blunt risks to utilities, but so far has only been tried in three states.

Even bigger picture – there’s a substantial inertia built into an energy economy created more than 100 years ago – a vast, complex system that works remarkably well to meet the needs of its customers.  To date, renewables are still a small slice of total US electricity output.  In 2018, natural gas generated about 35% of our electricity, coal about 27%, nuclear a bit over 19% and all renewables, including hydroelectric, not quite 17%, with niche sources making up the rest.

To be clear, renewable energy’s recent eclipse of coal in the US has been remarkable.  In fact, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced the very day this was written that in 2019 consumption of energy produced from renewables passed that produced by coal, the first time per EIA that this has happened since before 1885.  But a decarbonized energy economy is still decades away.  The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that to even approach climate goals, renewables must increase to around 65% of global Total Primary Energy Supply by 2050 – and we’re nowhere close to that yet.  More on all of the above, COVID impacts and the state of play in our next renewable installment.