Impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic caused major job losses in the energy industry in 2020. But the rate of job loss was highly uneven across the wide spectrum of energy jobs.
Fossil fuel jobs endured major losses, but four energy sectors managed to grow their labor forces: Wind, electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, and battery storage.
That the U.S. energy industry lost jobs during 2020 is hardly a surprise. But it’s noteworthy how deep the losses were across all aspects of the fossil fuel industry, which shed 10 to 24 percent of its workforce. Meanwhile, cleaner energy technologies were the only sectors that managed to grow amid chaotic pandemic and economic conditions. The overall job growth in wind, cleaner cars, and battery storage was robust enough to overpower both the economic downturn and the disruptions to working life caused by the pandemic.
The graphic above plots changes by percentage, which helps level the playing field between large and small sectors. But seeing the raw numbers is illustrative, too, so the graph below shows the gains and losses by the number of jobs. Note, for example, how the 8 percent gain in EV jobs equates to 6,100 jobs – a small sliver compared to the more than 200,000 jobs lost in the gasoline and diesel vehicle workforce. Ultimately, it’s useful to appreciate both the relative amount of change in various sectors and the comparative size of each of these labor pools.
The data in the charts above comes from the U.S. Energy and Employment Report, and a few more takeaways are listed below.
- Data for this annual report was compiled in the 4th quarter of 2020, the most recent industry-wide data available. Data from 2021 is expected to be available in late 2022.
- By late 2020, the energy industry had lost 839,000 jobs compared to jobs lost in 2019. That’s about 10 percent of the total energy workforce. Most of these losses were related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The pandemic has exacerbated some ongoing trends, such as the loss of coal jobs and the relative growth of cleaner energy generation compared to fossil fuels. But in some sectors, such as energy transmission and petroleum-powered vehicles, it seems likely the jobs will bounce back with economic recovery.
Fossil fuels and renewables lose about one-fifth of jobs
- Fossil fuel industries had the largest job losses. Extraction jobs fell by 20 percent or more throughout the coal, oil, and natural gas industries.
- Consumption of fossil fuels decreased during 2020. Coal, oil, and natural gas declined by 19 percent, 13 percent, and 2 percent, respectively. Fossil fuel consumption is largely expected to rebound during 2021 and 2022.
- Oil and gas extraction jobs were projected to increase somewhat during 2021, but not enough to offset all of the losses from 2020. Coal mining jobs are expected to continue to decline.
- The wind and solar industries have job profiles different from those of fossil fuels. Most wind and solar jobs are in construction. For fossil fuels, the workforce is concentrated in fuel extraction and power plant operation.
- Wind jobs grew by 2 percent, while solar jobs declined by 8 percent. These are both consistent with pre-pandemic trends. Wind jobs have been growing since 2015, and solar jobs have been shrinking since 2016 – but installations of both types of energy have been growing. The seeming contradiction in solar jobs is caused by an increase in the scale of solar projects: Large solar farms require fewer workers per megawatt compared to smaller, residential solar installations. 2020 was a record year for the amount of installed capacity of new solar panels, even though the workforce shrank. (Also see: How much do energy industry jobs pay? A look at the data)
- Construction of wind and solar infrastructure is expected to be the largest area of job growth in the electricity sector during 2021.
- The workforce for electric vehicles is far smaller than for traditional gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, but EV jobs grew by 8 percent in 2020, while petroleum-powered motor vehicle jobs shrank by 10 percent.
- Hybrid vehicles straddled the break-even line. Jobs building plug-in hybrids fell, but gasoline-electric hybrids grew.
Transmission and storage
- Energy transmission, distribution, and storage is a large part of the energy industry, and it includes transmission lines, battery storage, pipelines, fuel storage facilities, railways, and shipping ports.
- In general, this sector lost jobs in 2020, with the exception of battery storage, which grew by 1 percent, about 850 jobs.
Overall, 2020 was a disruptive year for the energy industry, as it was for most other aspects of life. That wind, electric vehicles, and battery storage all managed to grow in an environment of massive job losses speaks to the rising potential for these industries. The pandemic may persist for an uncertain period of time, but modernization of the energy industry nevertheless appears likely to grow.