At a time when the state is facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, it also is seeing significant growth in its clean energy industry.

This week, the Vermont Public Service Department released its 2020 Vermont Clean Energy Industry Report — a 40-page document that outlines the trends in one of the sectors often touted as an area for growth potential in Vermont.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the clean energy sector.

“The release of (the report) comes at a time of great uncertainty in all business sectors in Vermont and across the nation. Clean energy businesses have not been spared the widespread economic decline stemming from the novel coronavirus. Until the coronavirus curtailed much of the economy in March 2020, employment in the clean energy industry had been growing modestly. Unfortunately, Vermont lost an estimated 2,600 clean energy jobs as of April 2020 — a 15% decline — due to the COVID-19 crisis,” its authors noted in the report’s introduction.

With pre-COVID total employment of more than 18,900 workers, the clean energy sector represents about 6% of all Vermont workers — a higher than average amount compared with other states. However, this total has leveled off since 2017. In the first three years of the report clean energy employment expanded rapidly, growing by 29% from 2013 to 2017. The report shows that the number of clean energy jobs grew by 0.1% between the 2019 and 2020 reporting periods.

Commenting on the report PSD Commissioner June Tierney said in a prepared statement, “The clean energy sector of Vermont’s economy provides good jobs for Vermonters. As noted in the report, the pandemic has impacted all Vermonters, but the clean energy sector has seen less of decline in jobs than the Vermont economy at large. Moving forward from the current challenges will require that we improve the livelihood of Vermonters while meeting our state’s clean energy goals.”

The report highlights several key points:

— Vermont has a high concentration of clean energy jobs compared to the overall nationwide concentration.

— There were 13,636 Full Time Equivalent clean energy jobs across the state (just under three quarters of Vermont’s clean energy labor force).

— Since 2014, FTE clean energy jobs grew by about 30%.

— Energy efficiency jobs continued to lead the Vermont clean energy workforce with 10,741 workers.

— Clean Transportation jobs rose to more than 1,400 workers — more than doubling since 2014.

— Renewable energy jobs continued to contract down to 6,035 workers with losses in some sub-technologies slightly offset by modest job growth in others.

— The number of positions in the wood fuel segment continued to drop to 1,794 jobs from 1,841 in the previous census conducted in 2018.

Overall, the report notes that over the last three years, Vermont’s clean energy economy has remained mostly steady.

In addition, the report points out that clean energy jobs were more concentrated in Vermont than in neighboring states like Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, indicating that the clean energy economy “is a dependable source of jobs in Vermont.”

But COVID’s toll on the sector – and all sectors in Vermont’s job force – remains to be seen. This year could end up being the new baseline from which the industry must now grow.

“At the time of the survey, employers were optimistic about the future,” the report noted. Then COVID hit. “While the full extent of the pandemic’s economic impacts are yet unknown, BW Research estimates that Vermont has already lost 2,600 clean energy jobs as of April 2020.”

The report also points out that the “shuttering of doors for many businesses across the country has had other effects on the economy, including declining fossil fuel prices and reduced overall consumer spending and demand. While these overarching trends may continue through 2020, the clean energy industry is likely well-poised to see a rapid comeback compared to other sectors.”

It is encouraging news that the sector has been doing well, but it remains discouraging to be faced with more unknown variables affecting it moving forward. But it would seem that despite COVID, Vermont is well on its way to creating more sustainable jobs in the clean energy sector, and that is a good direction for the future.

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