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Opinion: Colorado’s clean energy workers are hurting in these coronavirus times

Colorado’s clean energy workforce is massive, diverse and at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019 was more than 62,000 people strong. That’s according to a just-released report from the national, nonpartisan business group E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), which listed Denver and Boulder as home to about two-thirds of these jobs.

We know Colorado’s clean energy sector well, and we approach it from different perspectives – one of us is a utility-scale wind energy developer based in Boulder, the other a small solar business owner living in Golden.

Michael Rucker, CEO of Scout Clean Energy

Despite the difference in the scales of the clean energy projects we work on – from solar arrays on suburban rooftops to towering wind turbines dotting thousands of acres of rolling ranchland – we’re both seeing the same thing as Colorado reels from coronavirus’ economic fallout: Clean energy workers are hurting, and they’re hurting badly.

That’s why Congress needs to act now.

According to E2’s report, late last year there were 3.4 million clean energy jobs nationwide, making it one of the fastest-growing workforces across the economy. In March alone, more than 106,000 of these clean energy workers lost their jobs. This includes more than 1,000 Coloradans, some of whom are our own friends, neighbors and colleagues.

Whitney Painter, a partner at Buglet Solar Electric

In the wind industry, a lack of public hearings and distracted regulatory agencies has meant critical permits are unable to move forward. Banks, meanwhile, are experiencing their most sudden and acute struggles since the financial crisis, leading to delays or even cancellation of financing for big wind projects.

Nationwide, an estimated 25 gigawatts of wind projects are at risk. This represents $35 billion in investment; the potential loss of more than $8 billion to rural communities in state and local tax payments and lease payments to private landowners (including Colorado farmers and ranchers); and the loss of more than 35,000 jobs like wind turbine technicians, construction workers and factory workers.

Already hamstrung by tariffs the Trump administration put in place in 2018, the solar industry is hurting, too. Companies are struggling to source parts as coronavirus disrupts supply chains. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, the industry’s workforce could be halved.

If that happens, 38,000 to 120,000 jobs could vanish, compared to the 250,000 employed in solar at the end of 2019. All these losses would be attributed to coronavirus; prior to this crisis, the solar workforce was expected to grow this year to 294,000.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

So what, exactly, can Congress do to support clean energy jobs, most of which are in construction or at small businesses?

Congress must take quick action to keep clean energy going. It should reinstate a program like Section 1603 used during the last financial crisis that monetizes tax credits directly for clean energy investors and project owners at a time when financial institutions may not be able to do so.

Congress should also extend the safe harbor from four to five years for Production Tax Credits for wind and the Investment Tax Credit for solar to accommodate for COVID-19 delays, while also investing up to $90 billion to modernize our electric grid to increase renewable energy carrying capacity.

Colorado has been a national leader in zero-emission vehicle legislation. The federal government can build upon our own bold local efforts by creating a national car charging and clean fuels network.

Congress can also fund community colleges and other institutions to create new or expand existing certified clean energy training programs. With wind turbine technicians and solar installers, the two fastest-growing occupations when coronavirus hit, these programs could help train displaced workers seeking new careers.

Finally, Congress can increase funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. ARPA-E has already jump-started 475 clean energy technologies, leading to $1.25 billion in follow-on private funding. With the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based in Jefferson County since 1974, Colorado is already at the center of clean energy innovation.

We are under no illusions: tough days lie ahead, with more clean energy job losses coming. But both of us are working hard to keep our own businesses on track, and we remain optimistic. Congress has a role to play, too. Now it’s time to act.


Michael Rucker, of Boulder, is CEO of Scout Clean Energy, a renewable energy development company. Whitney Painter, of Golden, is a partner at Buglet Solar Electric, a solar installation business. Both are members of the Rocky Mountains chapter of the national, nonpartisan business group E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs).

Correction: This column was updated at 10:34 a.m. on May 12, 2020, to correct the clean energy program number to Section 1603.

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