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Texas sees decline in clean energy jobs — and more losses are expected due to coronavirus

A new report indicates the Lone Star State lost 4,246 clean energy jobs — a 1.7 percent decline in the state's clean energy workforce. Getty Images

The dangerous duo of the global oil glut and the coronavirus-spawned economic shutdown already has whacked Houston's oil and gas sector. The crippling of the American economy has taken its toll on the region's clean energy industry as well.

In a report released April 15, a coalition of clean energy groups tallied the loss of 106,472 U.S. clean energy jobs in March. Texas accounted for 4,246 of the lost jobs, a 1.7 percent decline in the state's clean energy workforce. A metro-by-metro breakdown wasn't available.

The nationwide loss erased all of last year's gains in clean energy jobs in the renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, energy storage and clean fuels segments, the report states.

While that's a troubling development, the report predicts more than 500,000 clean energy jobs could at least temporarily be wiped out in the coming months. That would represent about 15 percent of the country's clean energy workforce.

"The economic fallout from COVID-19 is historic in both size and speed," Phil Jordan, vice president and principal of BW Research Partnership, says in a release. "Activities across the entire range of clean energy activities, from manufacturing electric vehicles to installing solar panels, are being impacted. And the data pretty clearly indicate that this is just the beginning."

Based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data, the report found those who lost jobs included electricians, HVAC and mechanical technicians, construction workers, solar power installers, wind power engineers and technicians, and manufacturing workers.

The report was produced by E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), E4TheFuture and BW Research Partnership.

Gregory Wetstone, CEO of ACORE, tells InnovationMap that the country's clean energy sector has been hobbled by supply chain disruptions, shelter-in-place orders and other pandemic-related interruptions.

"It is impossible to know the long-term trajectory of this pandemic, but it clearly threatens the trajectory of an industry that has led the nation in job creation for five consecutive years and is securing annual investment numbers in the range of $50 billion," Wetstone says. "With smart federal policies, we can continue that upward trajectory."

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics lecturer at the University of Houston, says he thinks the hit being taken by the clean energy sector is a short-lived setback. He cites the long-term strength of the clean energy industry — strength demonstrated by recent high-profile investments in the sector.

In December, Private Equity News reported that investment manager BlackRock Inc. raised a record $1 billion for its latest renewable energy fund. A month later, Altus Power America Inc., a solar energy provider based in Connecticut, said private equity powerhouse Blackstone Group Inc. had pumped $850 million into the company.

Hirs says he expects post-coronavirus growth in the clean energy sector to be "pretty robust." As of April 2019, the Houston area was home to more than 100 wind-related companies and more than 30 solar-related companies, according to the Greater Austin Partnership.

At the end of 2019, Texas boasted 683 solar companies and 10,261 solar jobs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Solar investment in the state exceeds $6 billion. The association says the Lone Star State "is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As for wind, it essentially tied with coal as the top source of power for Texas homes and businesses in 2019. This year in Texas, wind is projected to grab the No. 1 spot from coal. The state generates about one-fourth of the country's wind power, and the wind industry employs more than 25,000 Texans.

Hirs anticipates solar and wind installations in Texas will continue to escalate, although some companies might put off capital expenditures for about two to four months. "I don't see the economics changing on them anytime soon," he says.

The groundswell of interest in solar and wind power will be a boon to Texas and the rest of the country, Hirs says. A 2019 poll by the Insider website found that Americans prefer solar and wind over all other power sources.

"I don't think the loss of employment and loss of progress on clean energy … projects right now is anything but a temporary challenge," he says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Rice has developed a COVID diagnostic test that uses a cell phone. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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