with Paulina Firozi

The coronavirus crisis is not only battering the oil and gas industry. It’s drying up capital and disrupting supply chains for businesses trying to move the country toward cleaner sources of energy.

And while President Trump has promised lifelines for airlines and oil companies struggling with a drastic decrease in energy demand, there is much less focus in Washington on economic relief for renewables, my colleague Steven Mufson and I report. 

The federal response today stands in contrast the one to the Great Recession a decade ago, when Congress and the Obama administration earmarked an unprecedented sum for renewable energy and more efficient automobiles in a stimulus bill. Back then the United States spent $112 billion to boost “green” energy, according to the World Resources Institute.

The impact of the crisis on wind, solar and other clean-energy firms is already showing up in jobs numbers.

About 106,000 clean-energy workers have already filed for unemployment in March alone, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Environmental Entrepreneurs, an advocacy group.

The layoffs are a blow to a sector that has prided itself on official projections that solar installers and wind turbine technicians would be the two fastest growing occupations over the next decade.

The job losses include not just wind and solar construction workers, but also those assembling electric cars and installing energy-efficient appliances, lighting, heating and air conditioning.

“These aren’t left-wing coastal hippies,” said Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs. “These are construction workers who get up every day and lace up their boots and pull on their gloves and go to work putting insulation in our attics.”

Social distancing and the country’s stay-at-home orders are having a deep effect on daily operations. 

The areas hardest hit are installing solar panels on rooftops and adding energy-efficiency measures inside homes — work that often requires face-to-face interactions. Sungevity, once one of the nation’s leading solar-installation companies, laid off 377 workers, most of its workforce, in late March, according to filings with California’s Employment Development Department. The company, which had emerged from a 2017 bankruptcy, cited economic conditions.

The push to promote a more fuel-efficient automobile fleet has also veered off track. The electric carmaker Tesla was forced to shut down its factory in Fremont, Calif., just as it was turning up production on its new crossover vehicle, the Model Y.

Sungevity and Tesla represent only a sliver of the economic pain in this sector across the country. The Solar Energy Industries Association had anticipated a growth in solar jobs, from 250,000 to 300,000, over the course of the year, said the group’s president, Abigail Ross Hopper. Now, she said, half the workforce is at risk.

“Shelter in place puts limitations on how people can work,” she said. “Literally, people don’t want other people inside their houses to fix electrical boxes. And there are no door-to-door sales.”

Wind energy companies, too, are bracing for lost progress unless the federal government steps in. The American Wind Energy Association said projects that would add 25 gigawatts of wind power to the U.S. grid are at risk of being scaled back or canceled outright over the next two years because of the pandemic. Altogether, that work represents about 35,000 jobs.

“2019 was a good year for the wind industry,” said Tom Kiernan, the association’s chief executive. “We were expecting 2020 to be an even stronger year.”

One project put on the back burner: the enormous 9 gigawatt offshore wind project led by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority set to be completed by 2035.

With New York City besieged by coronavirus cases, the authority said it would comply with an executive order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), “pausing” all work on the project until at least May 15. Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also delayed wind turbine projects by deeming construction on them nonessential.

The supply chains have also taken a hit during the pandemic: Even if contractors can get the money to erect wind turbines or lay solar arrays, that doesn’t mean they will have the parts. At least two factories that make wind turbine parts — one in North Dakota and another in Iowa — were forced to pause production because of coronavirus outbreaks. Factory shutdowns in China have constrained solar supplies, too.

A key reason for delaying most big solar and wind projects is the use of tax credits known as “tax equity.” 

These allow investors, such as banks, to use the credits to directly offset their overall tax burdens. But if an investor doesn’t have enough profit to offset the credits, the tax equity could become worthless.

“If your profitability is going down, you don’t have the same appetite,” Hopper said.

Solar and wind industry leaders are pressing Congress and the Trump administration to extend the tax credits that are due to expire and to make the tax credits refundable, meaning the government would issue a check to investors who do not have enough profit to justify their investments.

Currently, big wind turbines get a 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour tax credit if construction begins before the end of this year. Tax credits for residential renewable energy — solar panels and small wind — phase out by the end of 2021.

The federal government so far is not heeding the call from solar and wind firms.

The Trump administration has shown far more eagerness to help American petroleum producers that the president said were “ravaged” by a sharp drop in energy demand. Last month, Trump met with oil executives at the White House, and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette has floated the idea of bridge loans for struggling oil firms.

During negotiations for the last relief package, congressional Democrats tried to strike a deal to refill the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve in exchange for extending the clean-energy incentives, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rebuffed those calls.

“Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” McConnell said in March.

Already, Democrats are signaling they will make a push again in the next round of stimulus spending.

“Relief and recovery legislation will shape our society for years to come,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), vice chair of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, a caucus that supports renewable energy resources. “We must use these bills to build in a climate-smart way.”

But it remains unclear how much appetite the GOP will have for a deal. “I just don’t know how to handicap that at this point,” said Grant Carlisle, an analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major environmental group.

Read more here:

Coronavirus fallout

America’s beaches are now a battleground.

Some states ordered some state and local beaches closed even as other others began to ease social distancing guidelines for the outdoor areas. 

  • In California, some surfers, walkers and other beachgoers ignored barriers after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ordered a “hard close” of state and local beaches, a response to a crowded previous weekend in Orange County. “A day after demonstrators congregated at the intersection of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach to rally against stay-at-home orders, another organized protest took place Saturday in Laguna Beach,” the Los Angeles Times reports.
  • In Florida, beaches in St. Johns County were open to record crowds in the month of March even after the county’s medical examiner repeatedly begged officials to close them, Meryl Kornfield reports, citing emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and reviewed by The Post. The beaches closed March 29, only to partially reopen two weeks later. “On Monday, St. Johns plans to reopen its beaches completely, amid a national debate and protests about access to beaches in coastal states,” Kornfield adds.
  • In New Jersey, meanwhile, as Island Beach State Park in Ocean County reopened over the weekend, there were mostly manageable and well-behaved crowds, the Associated Press reports. A reporter observed over four hours that nearly all beachgoers “complied with a requirement that they stay at least six feet apart to prevent the spread of the virus,” adding that while a few appeared to flout guidelines, “for the most part, the beachgoers did exactly as they were urged to do by state officials, keeping their distance while having fun in the sun. More than half wore masks, even as strong sunshine bore down on a 70-degree day.”
Everglades National Park is starting to reopen, too. 

The national park in Florida is “gradually reopening to the public starting on Monday, granting access to its main road from the Homestead entrance to Flamingo, as well as to the Flamingo marina and boat ramps, and all beach campsites in the wilderness,” the Miami Herald reports. “The park is waiving entrance fees.” 

Coronavirus-fueled shutdowns mean a big drop in nitrogen dioxide levels. 

The halted commutes, the drop in traffic and the shuttered factories have contributed to a reduction in air pollutants not seen in at least seven decades, the Wall Street Journal reports. In some places it has meant clearer skies, unobstructed views and easier breathing for individuals with respiratory issues. 

Scientists can now point to one particular pollutant that has dropped markedly. 

“One of the biggest airborne pollutants to fall off has been nitrogen dioxide, which is a byproduct of fossil-fuel emissions that most scientists believe is contributing to climate change,” per the report. “Satellite data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration show NO2 levels in the Northeastern U.S. dropped 30% during March from the previous four-year average for the month.” 

Power plays

Trump signs an executive order to protect the nation’s electricity grid. 

The order is meant to limit how much of the electric grid’s infrastructure can be made up of foreign resources and to protect the grid from potential threats.

The order “declares a national emergency and asserts federal oversight over private utility purchases of gear from suppliers deemed controlled or influenced by foreign adversaries,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “In effect, the government has signaled that it no longer will defer to utilities in their purchasing decisions because the nation’s most critical infrastructure—the one on which all others rely—is increasingly at risk of infiltration and sabotage.”

“It is imperative the bulk-power system be secured against exploitation and attacks by foreign threats,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in a statement.

A group of states is challenging the administration over its rollback of an Obama-era water rule. 

The attorneys general from California and New York are leading a group of 17 states in suing the Trump administration over its policy that scales back the number of waterways that are granted federal protections. 

“Clean water is a fundamental right. It is essential to preserving California’s biodiversity and protecting the health of our children and communities,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “We don’t intend to turn back the clock on clean waters.” 

The states argue the administration’s new rule is unlawful in part because it “Arbitrarily and capriciously reduces and eliminates protections for ephemeral streams, tributaries, adjacent waters, wetlands and other important water resources that significantly affect downstream waters” and “lacks a reasoned explanation or rational basis for changing long-standing policy and practice.” 

The National Weather Service wants to revolutionize storm warnings. 

The agency is working on the Forecasting a Continuum of Environmental Threats program, or FACETs, meant to improve weather watches and warnings to provide continuous information. The program will deploy “detailed hazard information through the use of ‘threat grids’ that are monitored and adjusted as new information becomes available,” according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. 

“In the current system, a severe thunderstorm warning isn’t issued until a storm meets severe thunderstorm criteria — the capability of producing damaging wind or hail larger than the size of quarters. The same is true with tornado warnings — rotation must be spotted within a storm,” Matthew Cappucci reports. “With more advanced high-resolution computer models, NOAA aims to model individual thunderstorms before they become severe or generate a tornado, issuing warnings based on the forecast of severe weather … There may even come a day when you’ll get a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning while standing beneath a blue sky — awaiting a storm that has yet to develop.” 

In other news

Now we have to worry about “murder hornets.” 

The world’s largest hornet species, whose queens can grow up to two inches long, has arrived in the United States. 

The Washington State Department of Agriculture is trying to track down the insects, known for invading honeybee hives, after receiving and verifying four reports of the hornet late last year, Marisa Iati reports. A New York Times story on Saturday made the term “murder hornets” trend on Twitter.

While the insects will direct aggression toward humans if they are threatened, the “giant hornets are primarily a danger to bees,” she adds. “Scientists are hunting for the insects, whose queens can grow to two inches long, in hopes of rounding them up before they become rooted in the United States and destroy bee populations that are crucial to crop pollination.” 

Extra mileage

A dust devil lifts tumbleweeds more than 100 feet into the air on Highway 240 near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state on April 30. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut.com)