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As market expands, renewable energy unemployment barely budges

Seven months after the coronavirus pandemic was declared a national emergency in the U.S., 13% of workers in the country's renewable power industry remain unemployed, even as America's wind and solar markets expand rapidly and investors push up stock valuations in the sector.

With about 2,300 jobs added in September, approximately 75,700 renewable power workers are still unemployed as a result of the pandemic, compared to some 82,400 at the end of June, according to an analysis of government data by BW Research Partnership on behalf of clean energy and environmental advocacy groups.

The renewable energy sector is on pace to install 37% more solar capacity this year than in 2019 — almost twice as much wind capacity. But the industry's unemployment rate is significantly higher than the national figure and down just 1 percentage point since the end of June, according to the new report. Adding to the incongruity, a basket of U.S. renewable power producers, investors and equipment-makers tracked by S&P Global Market Intelligence gained 131.5% this year through Oct. 8, compared to a 6.7% increase in the S&P 500.

The looming expiration of wind and solar tax credits is helping to accelerate project development this year, said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, while investors are betting on the industry's long-term prospects.

However, the pandemic is still weighing on the market, Wetstone said. To drive faster growth, he and other industry advocates are calling for aid in the form of a tax-credit extension and a direct payment option in lieu of credits.

In the broader clean energy industry, which includes sectors such as energy efficiency and low- or zero-emissions vehicles, nearly 478,000 workers are still unemployed compared to approximately 514,000 at midyear. The vast majority of job losses have been in the energy efficiency sector.

"While the nation's overall jobs recovery has stalled over the last several months, the clean energy sector has been particularly slow to rebound," BW Research said Oct. 7. "In September, clean energy jobs grew nearly 60 percent slower than jobs overall nationwide."

Unlike the EU, the U.S. has not made clean energy or climate change a focus of its coronavirus recovery effort.

"Continued paltry job growth and uncertainty headed into the slow winter hiring months confirms the need for federal clean energy stimulus," Sandra Purohit, advocacy director at the nonpartisan group E2, said in a news release. "This won't turn around by itself. Congress and the White House can't keep pretending that it will."