Pandemic has been tough on employment in N.J’s green energy sector

Analysis estimates that 16% of nearly 38,000 jobs have been wiped out in the COVID-19 slowdown
Credit: (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
An energy saving smart meter

After four years of steady growth, energy-saving programs and other efficiency efforts were slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with as many as 6,202 jobs wiped out in New Jersey from last December, according to a new analysis.

The analysis, by E4Future, Environmental Entrepreneurs and BW Research Partners, estimated a 16.3% decline in employment in the sector since the onset of the pandemic, with jobs declining from 37,982 to 31,781 in the state.

The slowdown reflects a nationwide trend, with more than 300,000 workers in the sector still unemployed since the industry began shedding jobs last year as the pandemic took hold in the U.S., according the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

The disruption led states — many like New Jersey with ambitious goals to counter climate change — to abruptly shift their focus to mitigate the health and economic impacts of the deadly global pandemic.

Here in New Jersey, with hundreds of thousands of customers falling way behind in paying utility bills, it has spurred calls by consumer advocates, including the state’s Division of Rate Counsel, to press for a suspension of further utility rate increases. That includes programs the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy deems critical to fund meeting its goals for transitioning to clean energy and reducing emissions that contribute to climate change, such as the electrification of the transportation system.

Green-energy advocates say those efforts should not take a back seat, even during a pandemic.

“A number of states see that they have to act aggressively now to cut carbon emissions, but others aren’t acting urgently,’’ said Steven Nadel, executive director of the ACEEE. “In this pandemic and recession, policymakers can embrace efficiency efforts to help residents reduce their utility bills, and to get more people back to work, all while cutting pollution.’’

A call for more state investment

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed, saying state investment should be stepped up in its energy efficiency programs — the largest energy sector in New Jersey.

“We’ve said all along — it is a win-win-win situation,” he said. “It creates jobs, reduces air pollution and saves people money on their utility bills. It really makes sense to invest in these programs.’’

In the past year, New Jersey has taken steps to have a more aggressive energy efficiency program, adopting specific energy-saving targets for gas and electric utilities, and developing policies to ensure low-income customers have equitable access to energy efficiency programs.

The state Board of Public Utilities approved a comprehensive energy efficiency program by the state’s largest utility, Public Service Electric & Gas, allowing the company to spend nearly $1 billion over the next few years. Electric utilities have to ramp up energy savings for customers by 2.15% a year and gas utilities by 1.1%. Those requirements are some of the highest levels in the nation, according to the ACEEE.

Nevertheless, New Jersey placed 17th in the nation in a 50-state scorecard (which also includes Washington D.C.) that ranks efforts in energy efficiency, the same spot the group gave New Jersey the previous year.

While some efficiency efforts stalled, others advanced before or during the pandemic, according to ACEEE. Top-ranked California, for example, approved $45 million in incentives for high-efficiency heat pump water heaters, a crucial technology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. California also moved to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.

The annual scorecard is scrutinized by clean energy advocates and policymakers as offering other states a blueprint for ways to reduce energy use by implementing best practices adopted by their neighbors.