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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

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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