Cathy Bussewitz, John Flesher and Patrick Whittle
The U.S. renewable energy industry is reeling from the new coronavirus pandemic, which has delayed construction and sowed doubts about projects on the drawing board. As many as 120,000 jobs in solar and 35,000 in wind could be lost, trade groups say.
In Wisconsin, the story has been a mixed one. Last month, officials with various utilities told state regulators that they are pushing back the completion of phase one of the massive Badger Hollow solar farm planned for Iowa County by four months in response to the outbreak. Work, though, is meanwhile underway on the 150-megawatt Two Creeks Solar Project in Manitowoc County.
And state regulators gave their approval last week to Dane County’s plans to build a $16.8 million, 9-megawatt solar array atop the county’s regional airport. Dane County has also announced it is seeking proposals for the construction a 18-megawatt solar farm on 120 acres near the county’s landfill.
Their spirits buoyed by projects like those, renewable-energy officials throughout the U.S. are generally confident their future is bright. But the worldwide slowdown is delaying a transition to cleaner energy that scientists say is not happening quickly enough to curtail climate change.
Even as some states move toward reopening, executives fear diminished incomes and work disrupted by layoffs and social distancing will do lasting damage.
Here are some of the latest developments in the renewable-energy industry:
Parts and people
The wind industry is plagued by slowdowns in obtaining parts from overseas, getting them to job sites and building new turbines.
Residential-solar businesses have been hit especially hard, as door-to-door sales have become no longer possible and potential customers have taken to watching their wallets closely.
Deals with commercial buyers also have slumped. Social-distancing requirements make it hard to place solar panels on rooftops.
New solar installations could be 17% lower worldwide than expected this year and wind-turbine manufacturing could fall by as much as 20%, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
The slump comes as renewable energy was on “a tremendous roll,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.
Fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal remain the leading providers of U.S. electricity, along with nuclear power. But renewable sources — wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal — have become increasingly common in the past decade. They produced nearly one-fifth of U.S. power last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The agency predicts the use of renewable energy, despite recent setbacks, will grow 11% this year — a sign of the sector’s strong surge before the economy tanked. Meanwhile, coal-fired power is expected to decline 20% and gas generation to grow just 1%.
The wind and solar industries have asked Congress and federal agencies for help, including an extension of their four-year deadlines for completing projects without losing tax benefits. Similar assistance was granted during the 2008-09 recession.
The renewable energy industry’s strength is crucial to improving the climate and to a strong economic recovery, said Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.
“These businesses, these workers deserve immediate relief,” Davis said.
– Dan Shaw of The Daily Reporter contributed to this article