At least 316 million people in the United States (or 96% of the country) have been directed to stay home to halt the spread of COVID-19. Those who are not essential workers are likely using up more electricity at home than they normally would, so you might imagine that the energy sector could be one of the few industries to come out of this pandemic relatively unscathed.
That may be true for regulated electric utilities and the large scale projects that contract with them. But it hasn’t held true for the energy sector’s largest employer, the energy efficiency sector, which has seen major layoffs since the start of the pandemic. And the pandemic’s impacts could be even more severe for smaller programs diversifying the energy efficiency workforce through job training programs for youth, low-income communities, and people of color.
Researchers have seen that COVID-19 health outcomes are disproportionately worse for Black and Latino communities. Likewise, the economic ramifications of the pandemic likely will be more extreme for portions of the energy sector that disproportionately employ Black and Latino workers and serve Black and Latino communities. Federal and state efforts to support the energy efficiency sector must ensure benefits for companies employing and serving communities of color.
COVID-19 pandemic halts residential energy efficiency work
Energy efficiency is the largest employer in the energy sector, employing at least 2.4 million workers or one in every three workers in the energy sector. Energy efficiency includes a wide variety of work. Workers might manufacture more efficient appliances or components, or they might go into homes and businesses and identify and install options to reduce energy use.
Energy efficiency work often requires entering a customer’s home. It requires conversations with residents or business owners about what changes they would like to make to increase efficiency. In short, it requires contact. The industry is trying to identify ways to do the work with less contact between people, but for now, business as usual is impossible, particularly for residential work. A report issued this month found that over 69,000 energy efficiency workers nationwide lost their jobs in March.
Energy efficiency as a foothold for diversifying the workforce
Notably, the energy efficiency workforce is whiter and more male-dominated than the workforce as a whole. Twenty-five percent of the energy efficiency workforce is female, compared with 47 percent of the national workforce. Eight percent of the energy efficiency workforce is Black, compared with 12 percent of the national workforce. And 15 percent of the energy efficiency workforce is Latino, compared with 18 percent of the national workforce.
Programs across the country are working to create more pathways to energy efficiency employment for workers from underrepresented groups. Some examples include:
- the City of Richmond, California’s RichmondBUILD Academy that trains workers from low-income households for jobs in construction and renewable energy,
- Rising Sun Center for Opportunity’s Climate Careers program that trains youth to provide energy efficiency services in the Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley through Green House Calls,
- Emerald Cities’ E-Contractor Academy that trains women-, minority-, or veteran-owned small contractors to conduct energy efficiency work in Ohio and California,
- Elevate Energy’s Contractor Accelerator that diversify the pool of energy efficiency and solar contractors by offering trainings in Chicago.
These programs, and their counterparts across the country expand the pool of available workers, introduce new communities to energy efficiency careers, and create new economic opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color. Yet, they face considerable challenges even when the economy thrives due to limited funding for these programs. Shutdowns due to stay at home orders are jeopardizing their ability to serve their communities, and may limit work for many months into the future. Additionally, job trainees, many of whom are already experiencing financial adversity, now face a new devastating setback as their programs shut down and the job market contracts.
Creating jobs by lowering bills
Not only do these programs introduce new workers to the sector, some programs also focus their energy efficiency work in underserved communities. Losing these programs would make it even harder for families as their energy usage and utility bills rise.
Studies have already shown that Black and Latino families face a higher energy burden than White families. Reducing utility bills through increased energy efficiency will benefit low-income households most, especially as unemployment rates are soaring and there is a public health imperative to making sure people can stay safe at home.
How to protect energy efficiency jobs in communities of color
Energy efficiency programs serving communities of color will need support to survive this challenging time, and it’s important that these programs are not overlooked in federal and state economic recovery efforts. Congress can help keep these programs alive by reauthorizing or expanding funding for existing programs:
- Congress should reauthorize and fund the US Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. The grant program ran from 2009 to 2015 and provided grants to state, local, and tribal governments for energy efficiency programs. The program created over 60,000 jobs from 2011 to 2015, and saved residential customers $3.6 billion nationwide.
- Congress can lower energy bills for low-income families by increasing funding for the Department of Energy’s Low-Income Weatherization Assistance Program. At current funding levels, the program provides funding for 8,500 jobs and saves the average household $283 per year.
This funding alone won’t be enough to support the sector. As state leaders start convening task forces to guide the economic recovery from this crisis, they must prioritize policy choices that benefit those who are suffering the most. Workforce development policies both at the federal and state level should include job quality and equity measures, to ensure that people of color and low-income communities have access to high quality clean energy jobs.
Even before the pandemic, energy efficiency nonprofits targeting communities of color, youth, and other underrepresented populations have struggled to identify stable funding sources and ensure well-paying jobs for program graduates. Utilities as well as state and local governments can help by remedying policies that incentivize investment in less expensive programs that may not reach low-income communities or communities of color. Programs targeting underserved populations may require more investment, and given the economic and public health impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations, that higher investment likely will be necessary for long-term recovery.
UCS is advocating for inclusion of clean energy and energy efficiency programs in the next round of federal stimulus packages and state recovery efforts. In addition to infrastructure projects, investments in energy efficiency and workforce development can and must directly benefit communities hardest hit by the triple threat of devastating health outcomes, job losses, and energy burdens.