Advanced Energy Jobs on the Rebound After COVID-19 Hit

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After getting slammed by COVID-19 last spring, jobs at advanced energy companies are rebounding but remain below prepandemic levels, according to Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), a trade group. The report found that the segment that includes microgrids also experienced a downturn.

There were 3.5 million advanced energy jobs at the end of 2019, up 2.1% from the year before, AEE said in a report April 19.

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However, the pandemic disrupted supply chains, shut down projects and prevented customer contact, leading to a loss of 620,000 advanced energy jobs, or 15%, by June 2020.

Over the summer, companies adjusted to the new working conditions and jobs started to grow, ending the year down about 320,000 jobs, or about 9% of pre-COVID-19 levels, AEE said.

The economic downturn hit the energy efficiency segment the hardest, with jobs down 11% to 2.1 million jobs from 2019 to 2020. Energy efficiency accounts for most advanced energy jobs.

The segment that includes microgrids — advanced grid and storage — saw employment fall 7% last year to 138,000 jobs, according to AEE.

Meanwhile, wind energy employment grew 2% to 117,000 jobs, and electric vehicle-related jobs grew 2%.

Surveyed late last year, advanced energy employers predicted job growth of 8% for this year, AEE said.

C&I hottest microgrid market

Looking ahead, the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector will be the fastest growing market in North America over the next decade, according to a separate AEE report written by Guidehouse Insights, formerly Navigant Research.

Once the smallest part of the microgrid market, the C&I segment is growing because of power outages, Guidehouse said in the report released late last month.

Join Guidehouse’s Peter Asmus for a panel discussion with industry leaders, “Why Does a Microgrid Cost What It Costs?” at Microgrid 2020 at 1-2 pm on May 20. Registration is free.

Public safety power shutoffs in California showed businesses they needed better solutions than backup diesel generators that must stop running when they reach state emission limits, according to the consulting firm.

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Guidehouse said there are four key factors driving the outlook for the C&I microgrid market:

√ Sharply falling costs for distributed solar photovoltaics (PV) and energy storage, which appeal to C&I customers who want reliability benefits and lower costs.

√ Major advances in software controls that allow microgrids to maximize the value of legacy assets, such as backup diesel generators, and new technologies like solar and battery storage.

√ Business innovation such as no money down, energy as a service contracts that limit upfront capital expense and allow a microgrid to be viewed as an operating and maintenance expense.

√ The emergence of modular microgrid solutions, which may appeal to C&I customers that own or manage portfolios of similarly sized commercial buildings.

Last year, those trends prompted Schneider Electric and Huck Capital to create GreenStruxure, a company that focuses on microgrids for medium-size buildings, with an emphasis on the California market, according to Guidehouse.

California is a focal point for other microgrid developers, too, Guidehouse said. They include Bloom Energy, with fuel cell microgrids, and Scale Microgrid Solutions, with standardized packages combining dispatchable natural gas generators, solar PV and batteries that can be preconfigured to fit any site’s needs, according to the consulting firm.

Microgrids were a $9.5 billion market in 2020

Microgrids were a $9.5 billion market last year, with remote microgrids accounting for $4.1 billion and the C&I segment making up $3.6 billion of the overall market. Spending on US microgrids hit $3.1 billion after climbing 13% a year over the last decade.

Microgrids stand to gain from a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision requiring grid operators, such as PJM Interconnection, to give aggregated distributed resources access to wholesale power markets, according to Guidehouse.

The ruling, called Order 2222, will speed up the ability of microgrids to become virtual power plants, providing grid services to wholesale markets, the consulting firm said.

Other countries that are considering market reforms may use FERC’s decision as a model, according to Guidehouse.

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