Despite recent hurdles, renewable energy sector sees reasons for optimism

In a year when countless economic sectors have been hit hard, the renewable energy industry is no exception.

A report released this month by the American Council of Renewable Energy revealed that 446,000 renewable energy workers nationwide will be unemployed heading into the holidays, a figure that represents 13% of the sector’s workforce.

This metric underscores the struggles that have faced the solar and wind industries over the past year.

Eagle Point Solar President and CEO Jim Pullen acknowledged that 2020 has not gone as expected, but he emphasized that the outlook for the Dubuque-based company — and the industry as a whole — remains strong.

“The downsides were not as drastic here as we saw in other areas,” he said. “We still grew from a sales side, but we grew slower than we really wanted to. We didn’t get where we thought we could get.”

Pullen said Eagle Point Solar’s 2020 sales likely will finish between 5% and 10% below budget, even though the company outpaced the previous year’s results.

He explained that the pandemic didn’t slow construction of solar projects that Eagle Point had already landed. But it disrupted the interactions that typically generate new sales.

Eagle Point operates in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. At certain points this year, depending on the specific restrictions within each state, sales representatives were not able to visit potential new clients.

“We are a face-to-face business,” Pullen explained. “Our model is to sit down with homeowners or business owners and talk to them in person.”

Despite such hurdles, renewable energy still saw its presence grow.

According to a Dec. 8 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources will generate roughly 20% of electricity in 2020, up from 18% in 2019. That figure is projected to rise to 21% next year.

EIA projects that 23 gigawatts of wind energy were added in 2020 and another 9.5 gigawatts will be brought on in 2021. Solar capacity rose by 12.8 gigawatts in 2020 and will increase by around 14 gigawatts next year, EIA predicted.

The growing commitment to renewable energy was reflected in Alliant Energy’s recently released Clean Energy Blueprint for Iowa.

According to the document, the utility plans to discontinue coal generation in Lansing, Iowa, by the end of 2022 and transition its Burlington Generating Station to natural gas in 2021.

Meanwhile, Alliant will increase its use of renewable resources, add more battery storage and build out a connected energy network.

Alliant intends to add 400 megawatts of solar by 2023. Combined with the utility’s 1,300 megawatts of wind energy and other resources, nearly 50% of Alliant’s generation portfolio will come from renewables.

Ben Lipari, Alliant’s Director of Resource Development, believes these developments speak to a broader transition.

“It is really about the transformation of our generation portfolio,” he said. “As we look to retire some of our traditional assets, there is also an opportunity to bring forward renewable assets.”

The growth of such assets is not particularly surprising, given their advantages.

“They are truly beneficial for customers, because they are marrying the benefits of environmental stewardship with the economic benefits,” Lipari said.

For those in the renewable energy industry, the election of a new president signals a new opportunity.

Just one week after the election, the Solar Energy Industries Association formally released a suite of policies that it is asking President-elect Joe Biden to act on during his first 100 days in office. The association’s wishlist includes a tax policy that expands the use of solar energy; trade policies that offer clarity and predictability; and permitting approvals that cut red tape and allow for quicker and cheaper installation of solar energy.

Governmental policy can shape how the solar industry is viewed by consumers and workers alike.

For instance, a longstanding investment tax credit for solar installation has compelled customers to embrace the renewable energy source and, in turn, led to the creation of more jobs.

But the value of this credit is shrinking and, according to Pullen, is eventually slated to be phased out altogether for residential customers. He is among many in the industry that would like to see that credit restored to its original level.

As he looks forward, Pullen sees plenty of reason to be optimistic. He expects 15% to 20% sales growth in 2021, a trend that should have a ripple effect on the employment base at Eagle Point Solar.

“Sales growth means adding employees,” he said.