Morgan Zehrung, owner of Forecast Solar, takes measurements for solar panels on a home in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Morgan Zehrung, owner of Forecast Solar, takes measurements for solar panels on a home in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Pandemic slows growth of the clean-tech sector — for now

With economic uncertainty, homeowners and businesses have put the brakes on alternative energy plans.

EVERETT — A year ago, solar power was one of the fastest-growing renewable energy sources in the United States, second only to wind, according to the International Energy Agency.

But economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has put a dent in the solar panel industry and, more broadly, cast a shadow over the state’s clean energy and clean technology sectors.

The will to develop green energy is still there, but financial uncertainty is prompting homeowners and businesses to put the brakes on solar and other renewable projects.

Pre-pandemic Washington’s clean tech industry enjoyed five consecutive years of job growth. By 2019, it employed more than 85,000 people and was on track to add another 2,000 or so jobs in 2020.

Clean tech — which once referred almost exclusively to renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar panels and battery technology — now describes products and services that lower energy use, reduce pollution and cut food and agricultural waste. As a result, clean tech jobs can be found in a range of industries, from manufacturing to construction to electric vehicle sales.

Instead, more than 17,000 jobs were eliminated last year, according to a report by E2 Environmental Entrepreneurs, CleanTech Alliance and others.

Fewer project orders have forced Morgan Zehrung, the owner of Forecast Solar, an Everett company that designs and installs solar energy systems, to cut back on employee hours.

“We’ve been able to maintain, but we haven’t been growing,” said Zehrung, who founded the business in 2005.

Morgan Zehrung, owner of Forecast Solar, takes measurements for solar panels on a home in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Morgan Zehrung, owner of Forecast Solar, takes measurements for solar panels on a home in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Snohomish County’s clean-tech sector lost more than 1,300 jobs in 2020, with employment dropping from 8,052 in 2019 to 6,700 last year.

While other counties, including King, Pierce and Spokane, also recorded substantial employment dips in their clean-tech sectors, Snohomish County’s 17% decline was, percentage-wise, among the highest.

Experts predict that the clean-tech jobs will come back when the pandemic subsides and consumers regain a sense of financial stability, but it could be slow going.

Zehrung hoped that business would pick up toward the end of last year and help make up for the effect of the state lockdown order last spring, which put residential projects on pause for nine weeks.

“Typically in December, you get a rush of people looking to pick up the tax credit,” Zehrung said. That didn’t happen this winter.

There is work, Zehrung said, “but it’s definitely not as robust as it used to be.”

Morgan Zehrung (left), owner of Forecast Solar, talks with homeowner Brian Aikins and builder Jeff Harrell in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Morgan Zehrung (left), owner of Forecast Solar, talks with homeowner Brian Aikins and builder Jeff Harrell in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Fallout from the pandemic is worrisome, Zehrung said, but he also fears that the solar industry’s recovery could be stymied by another loss — the demise of the Solar Investment Tax Credit.

The federal tax credit, in place since 2005, allows homeowners to deduct a big chunk of the cost of a solar energy system from their taxes — up to 30% of the cost of the system.

The credit was due to be phased out at the end of this year, but Congress extended the credit when it passed a massive relief package in December. It was 30% until 2019. Now it’s 26%. In 2023, it drops to 22%, and then it ends altogether for homeowners in 2024.

On the other hand, the tax credit for commercial building owners remains, indefinitely, at 10%.

“It seems backwards and unfair to block individuals from the tax credit while giving it to commercial installations,” Zehrung said. “It does not fit the promoted objective that we need more clean energy. I’m hoping the Biden administration will take concrete action to correct this and allow for equal access to renewable technology and incentives.”

Others see a silver lining for the clean-tech industry.

The pandemic has sparked a cascade of technological innovations and refinements “across all industries that will benefit the clean-tech sector,” said Diane Kamionka, who leads TheLab@everett and the Northwest Innovation Resource Center, two business incubators that serve the region.

The center recently sponsored an Amazon innovation contest that distributed $75,000 to inventors in Snohomish and Skagit counties. The winning concepts overwhelmingly focused on energy-saving devices, pollution and waste control, as well as manufacturing and farming techniques that save on energy or reduce fossil fuel use. The resource center has teamed with the Seattle CleanTech Alliance and plans an eight-week, clean tech support program for entrepreneurs, Kamionka said.

The Boeing Co. recently announced that it aims to make commercial airplanes capable and certified to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.

Paul Roberts, the Everett City Councilman and chairman of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency board, said that while the pandemic has cast a pall, “the demand for clean energy hasn’t gone away.”

One way to ensure demand is met is by adequately funding the state’s colleges and universities, Roberts said. Degree and certificate programs at Everett Community College, Edmonds College and Washington State University Everett and other institutions help prepare students for clean energy jobs, but budget cuts in Olympia could put the squeeze on those programs, Roberts said. “Higher education and job training are part of this, and I don’t want to see them left out,” he said.

Still, Roberts is cheered by a spate of new energy-efficient companies seeking space in Snohomish County.

magniX, a company developing electric motors to power aircraft, recently moved its headquarters from Redmond to a 40,000-square-foot building near Paine Field. Its sister company, Eviation, which is building a fully-electric commuter airplane that will be powered by three magniX electric motors, has leased space at the Cascade Manufacturing Center in Arlington for an assembly plant.

In Darrington, plans to build a timber innovation center, focused on innovation and conservation, are coming together, Roberts pointed out.

The project received a $2 million state grant in 2019. Project planners are seeking additional grants this year. One environmentally friendly technology the proposed center hopes to capitalize on is demand for cross laminate timber, known as CLT. Harvested from managed forests, the sustainable layered wood product can replace steel and concrete that require high levels of energy to produce.

“I really think there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” Roberts said. “But we have to deal with COVID first — that’s the elephant in the living room. It’s going to be hard to move forward until we deal with it.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Commercial Aircraft Interiors General Manager James Barnett stands in a warehouse aisle of 777 overhead bins at the company's new building on Monday, May 20, 2019 in Arlington, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
12 Snohomish County aero firms get $19M for job protection

The Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection grants could save 2,280 Washington jobs for up to six months.

FILE - The logo for Boeing appears on a screen above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Despite the pandemic's damage to air travel, Boeing says it's optimistic about long-term demand for airplanes. Boeing said Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 that it expects the aerospace market to be worth $9 trillion over the next decade. That includes planes for airlines and military uses and other aerospace products and services. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
Pandemic hasn’t dimmed Boeing’s rosy prediction for planes

The company is bullishly predicting a $9 trillion market over the next decade.

Washington August jobless rate was 5.1%; 16,800 jobs added

August’s rate was the same as July’s rate, and increased even as COVID-19 cases surge.

Boeing moving 150 jobs from Washington and California to Texas

The affected jobs are in the company’s global parts distribution unit.

School-age lead Emilee Swenson pulls kids around in a wagon at Tomorrow’s Hope child care center on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 in Everett, Washington. A shortage of child care workers prompted HopeWorks, a nonprofit, to expand its job training programs. Typically, the programs help people with little or no work experience find a job. The new job training program is for people interested in becoming child care workers. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
HopeWorks to offer career training for child care workers

The Everett nonprofit hopes to train workers as child care centers struggle to hire staff.

Genna Martin / The Herald
David Barney, owner of Barney's Pastrami on Evergreen, has changed the last names of the dozens of celebrities who's photos hang on the wall of his restaurant to Barney.  The newly named celebrities include Humphrey Barney, Uma Barney, Marilyn Barney, Olivia Newton-Barney and Stevie Ray Barney.  
Photo taken 11252014
Where’s Barney? His pastrami shop has served its last hoagie

Even the Evergreen Way deli’s landlord is looking for him. David Barney has vanished.

Tasty and healthy asian food - spicy ramen with wheat noodle, meat, eggs and onion in white pot with chopsticks. Vector illustration of traditional korean cuisine for menu, recipe books or printing
You voted: The best Vietnamese food in Snohomish County

Even during a pandemic, folks still have their favorites.

‘Fulfillment center’ proposed along Bothell Everett Highway

Amazon denies that it’s involved in the project. But permitting documents include the company name.

A drawing of the giant Funko Pop! balloon depicting Baby Yoda, which will wind through the streets of New York during this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Funko) 20210912
It’s OK to Pop! this balloon: Funko to join the Macy’s parade

Funko’s incarnation of Baby Yoda will float by in this year’s Thanksgiving Day event.

Most Read