The latest tally of the state’s clean-energy economy might seem like reason to celebrate. Nearly 112,000 jobs in 2019. Three percent of the state’s total workforce. Nine straight years of growth.
Keep that champagne on ice, folks. This measurement of the clean-tech sector is more somber than it looks at first glance: Job growth in the state has been decelerating for the past four years.
The 1 percent increase in clean-energy workers last year represented the smallest rise since the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center first started tracking these numbers nine years ago. And in one section of the industry — renewable energy — the number of jobs actually fell by 4 percent in 2019. Most of the growth was seen in heating, cooling, lighting, and other energy efficiency roles that would probably rise anyway during a booming economy.
Job growth in the clean energy sector isn’t far behind the overall rate of the state’s economy , at least when you include those construction-related positions. But with all the hype about how Massachusetts is a leader on everything from solar power to offshore wind to energy storage, you might expect a little more spark in the clean-tech sector’s employment here.
The slowdown is happening as the issue of climate change becomes hotter than ever. Everywhere you look, business and government leaders are talking about the urgency. In Davos, Switzerland, European officials on Tuesday called for global cooperation to combat climate change. Meanwhile, here in Boston, Governor Charlie Baker made climate a centerpiece of his state-of-the-state speech Tuesday night, committing Massachusetts to the noble goal of “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” by 2050.
One troubling spot for the industry in Massachusetts: solar. Nearly a year ago, the Solar Foundation ranked us second-to-last in new solar employment for 2018, behind California; Massachusetts had shed solar jobs for the second year in a row. The outlook was supposed to be sunny for 2019, with 7.4 percent growth in solar jobs predicted here.
Maybe not. The MassCEC report out this month shows the solar workforce in Massachusetts fell by 7 percent last year. That’s the main culprit behind the clean energy slowdown. The MassCEC attributed the decline to national trends: labor-efficient business models, and reduced door-to-door sales.
But other factors are at work, too. John DeVillars, chairman of the Boston solar company BlueWave, points to two concerns, in particular. He blames a delay in the issuance of rules for the state’s SMART program, a ratepayer subsidy system for solar power; he knows of several projects that are on hold as a result. Even in its current iteration, SMART provides lower subsidies than the system the state previously used.
The more widely cited issue involves connection approvals that solar panel developers need from utilities. DeVillars said they’ve all but ground to a halt in many places as utilities study the potential impacts.
The utilities’ representatives, meanwhile, note that more than 2,200 megawatts of solar are in place across National Grid’s and Eversource’s service areas. (One MW of solar can power about 200 homes.) The industry has seen an influx of larger, ground-mounted projects in rural areas, an Eversource spokeswoman said, and grid overseer ISO New England requires evaluations of their potential impacts on the broader electric grid.
Then there’s offshore wind. Vineyard Wind had hoped to start work by now on a massive project south of Martha’s Vineyard that would have been the first major offshore wind farm in the United States. But the Trump administration put the permitting on hold to study the cumulative impacts of similar projects. Until construction begins on these towers, employment in Massachusetts will remain modest: Vineyard Wind has 80 people here, for example, while rival developer Mayflower Wind has 20 and Orsted, 40.
Bob Rio at Associated Industries of Massachusetts said that once the wind farm work begins in earnest, more jobs will follow. But Rio also said we may have hit “peak clean-energy jobs.” Not necessarily a bad thing, he said, as the sector enters a more mature phase with fewer subsidies.
This jobs slowdown is occurring as the fate of the MassCEC itself remains unclear. The quasi-public agency isn’t going away. But its roughly $30 million grant budget could shrink significantly as the Baker administration revisits the agency’s mission with an eye toward making it more self-sustaining. This thorny topic is slated to be discussed at the agency’s next board meeting, on Feb. 5.
For advocates such as Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, it’s time to step up the pace in clean-tech investments. Her take: When you consider the magnitude of the climate crisis, this is precisely the moment when clean energy job growth should be accelerating, not slowing down.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.