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Unemployment, and an escalating climate change crisis: Business leaders say clean energy could provide a solution

Solar panel installed on the roof of an apartment building.
/nd700 - stock.adobe.com

The unemployment rate in the U.S. remains down considerably from highs in April 2020 (i.e. the start of the pandemic). Still, those rates remain well above levels prior to the coronavirus. Some business leaders propose a solution: the further expansion of clean energy.

Pre-pandemic, clean energy employment grew by 6% annually. That’s about twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. economy. It also grew faster than fossil fuels and the energy sector overall — with clean energy accounting for half of all new energy jobs in 2018 and 2019.

The data implies that a clean energy recovery could boost employment throughout the country. That’s according to Environmental Entrepreneurs, or E2: a nonpartisan, national group of business leaders that tracks environmental policy, clean energy job growth, and economic prosperity.

Bob Keefe, a North Carolina native, is E2’s Executive Director. He says that:

“...like the rest of or most of the economy in the United States, clean energy took a pretty big hit last year. Clean energy jobs fell for the first time since we've been tracking them nationally dropping about 307,000 jobs nationally.”

But according to E2’s Clean Jobs in America 2021 report, data indicates that clean energy has proven to be more resilient than many other economic sectors. Since May 2020, clean energy jobs have grown by more than 11%, compared to about 9% across the U.S. economy overall.

Clean energy jobs increased higher than the overall national workforce on average, since unemployment peaked in May 2020.
Environmental Entrepreneur
Clean energy jobs increased higher than the overall national workforce on average, since unemployment peaked in May 2020.

Today, the sector employs millions of Americans across every state and nearly every county. And the jobs are diverse:

“A lot of people think about clean energy jobs, and they think solar installer, and wind turbine technician, which is great, because according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those are two of the fastest-growing jobs in the country.

But remember that clean energy jobs include jobs all across the economy. They include electricians, they include HVAC technicians, they include construction, laborers, energy efficiency. Clean energy jobs are jobs all across the spectrum, and they're open to people all from all education levels and every single part of the country.”

Clean Energy in North Carolina

North Carolina currently ranks in the top 10 for clean energy employment in the U.S. For potential in solar specifically, it ranks third, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Richard Harkrader is the founder of Carolina Solar Energy, as well as an advocate for renewable energy and energy efficiency. He says solar poses a variety of benefits to the state.

“There are 75 property tax reduction possibilities in the state of North Carolina, the major ones being for agriculture, and timber, uses of land. When one property is converted to solar, it becomes a commercial or industrial property. And that greatly increases the tax revenues.”
Richard Harkrader, founder of Carolina Solar Energy

There are challenges, however. Harkrader says a major issue in North Carolina is that renewable energy resources are mostly in the eastern part of the state. The state’s existing transmission grid, meanwhile, doesn’t have the capacity for moving clean energy to the piedmont and mountain regions.

“The solar industry, in particular, has really used up almost all the legacy capacity that exists in the transmission and distribution grid in North Carolina. And without significant investments in the grid, we’re really stalled in how much more solar and wind energy we can install.”

The solar industry has invested $9,560.87 million in North Carolina, including $783.05 million in 2020.
Solar Energy Industries Association
The solar industry has invested $9,560.87 million in North Carolina, including $783.05 million in 2020.

Harkrader highlights a key point that E2’s report also touched on: job growth in clean energy can’t happen without investments in the infrastructure.

Harkrader and Bob Keefe note that with further state, local, and federal legislation focused on environmental policy; North Carolina and other U.S. states can not only strengthen employment — but also resilience from the broader issue of climate change.

“What we know is that the economy and the environment are not at odds. And in order to grow the economy, we need to take care of the environment.”
Bob Keefe, Executive Director of Environmental Entrepreneur

Clean Energy in the Cape Fear

Wilmington’s position on the coast makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change — rising sea levels, hurricane threats, increased temperatures. Clean energy could help the city mitigate those threats, says Keefe:

“We need to install more renewable energy, we need to improve energy efficiency, we need to drive cleaner vehicles. And what that means is jobs in solar and wind, it means jobs in energy efficiency. And it means jobs and putting in electric charging stations, and making and selling more cars that run cleaner, and run longer and run on electricity.”

Last month, Wilmington’s City Council approved a list of priorities and goals to help meet a 50% transition from fossil fuels to clean energy by the year 2035, and a 100% transition by 2050.

See related: Wilmington City Council approves clean energy goals through 2050

Keefe notes that’s a major step in the right direction.

Currently in Wilmington, 4,500 residents work in clean energy, making up 3.4% of the city’s total workforce. With further prioritization in clean energy initiatives, Keefe says it’s possible those numbers could grow significantly — putting the Port City in a strong position economically moving forward, in addition to helping it adapt and respond to a changing climate.

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.