Royal River Heat Pumps is a heating and air-conditioning enterprise, so it technically qualifies as an essential business during the coronavirus pandemic. But Scott Libby, the company’s owner, realized bringing workers inside someone’s home this spring to install a high-efficiency heating and cooling unit was not only risky, but not really essential.

So by late March, he had furloughed 30 of his 36 employees and parked the company’s 14 vans in front of the Freeport business.

“I just got to the point where it was time to pull the plug and wait this out,” Libby said.

The impact was immediate: Revenue so far in April has essentially dropped to zero.

Maine’s clean-energy industry was anticipating robust activity in 2020. The economy was humming. The Legislature had restored incentives for rooftop solar and enacted policies promoting renewable power. Aggressive climate goals from Gov. Janet Mills, such as installing 100,000 high-efficiency heat pumps by 2025 and other measures to reduce oil and gas use, were creating momentum and business opportunities.

But today, much of the momentum has stalled. At least in the short term, a sector of Maine’s economy that was poised to grow is restrained, just when efforts to mitigate climate change were creating a sense of urgency.

By mid-March, government restrictions to contain coronavirus and fears of spreading the disease were starting to curtail some operations, such as installing heat pumps and performing in-home energy audits.

Other enterprises, including rooftop solar installation, were pivoting to remote, online strategies that could keep customers engaged and inch along planned projects.

It’s not all gloomy.

Recent laws and policies in Maine that encourage utility-scale solar have set off a land boom, with developers trying to nail down the best sites and grid connections. Those projects require long-term planning and investment, but little personal contact. They seem to be less disrupted.

And for heat pump installers such as Libby, April is usually a slower month, a temperate break between winter chill and summer swelter.

“In the heat pump world, we need an 85-degree day in May,” he said. “People think, ‘I need a heat pump. I can’t live without air conditioning again.’ That will jump-start our little economy.”

INFRASTRUCTURE AT RISK

The angst in Maine’s clean-energy sector is magnified nationally, where hundreds of thousands of energy efficiency and rooftop solar workers have been idled. There’s mounting concern that small, customer-facing businesses are in a race against time to maintain their workforce and momentum.

On one hand, the sudden collapse of vehicle traffic and factory output has led to a welcome, global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But that pause is temporary, and experts worry that America’s collective ability to fight climate change will be hurt after the pandemic eases.

“Energy efficiency requires having a whole infrastructure of contractors who are trained to do the work, supply chains that can get them the needed equipment and materials,” Lowell Ungar, a senior policy adviser with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently told E&E News, an industry publication. “If the infrastructure that we have developed over the last few decades goes away, that’s a huge problem.”

In fact, a report issued Wednesday by the Environmental Entrepreneurs business advocacy group found that 106,000 clean-energy workers lost their jobs nationally in March, the largest share in the energy efficiency sector. The report said Maine had a total of 12,798 clean-energy workers, but didn’t estimate recent job losses for the state.

But there also may be a sliver lining, suggested Sue Ely, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. People are spending unprecedented time at home. They have become more aware of the costs of heating and lighting. They may have gained a new appreciation for walking paths, bike lanes and alternative transportation.

“Climate change isn’t going away,” Ely said. “We’ll still need to move forward with solutions that require personal interaction, as soon as the crisis abates.”

Ely also noted that state-level planning continues. For instance, the energy business trade group E2Tech is presenting a webinar on Wednesday, focusing on the Maine Climate Council’s plans for meeting Maine’s climate goals in the transportation and heating sectors.

Employees at Royal River Heat Pumps wrote messages on the company’s van windows, which were parked Wednesday in the company’s lot along Route 1 in Freeport. Many clean energy companies in Maine have furloughed workers because of coronavirus. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

DARK DAYS FOR SOLAR

Maine’s rooftop solar installers have varied responses to the pandemic.

Maine Solar Solutions in Durham has ceased all home installations. In mid-March, one of the company’s installers called in sick with a cough and fever. Another stayed home with similar symptoms a couple of weeks later.

“We made the hard decision, but the right decision, to furlough our 12 installers for the time being,” said Sam Zuckerman, the company’s owner.

Maine Solar has since put up a Q&A on its website to guide customers and offer virtual consultations.

The year had started busy, because a federal tax credit for solar installations is being phased down, now at 26 percent in 2020. With a typical system costing between $15,000 and $20,000, the credit helps drive sales. But already, some potential customers – most notably small retailers – are putting installs on hold.

“We are refiguring our projections for what our business will be this year,” Zuckerman said. “We had to scale them back. We will see fewer installs and lower revenue than we would have expected six weeks ago, mostly due to economic uncertainty.”

ReVision Energy in Portland is leaning more on virtual consultations. Like many installers, ReVision uses Google Earth and online mapping tools for initial calculations of a home’s solar potential. It has enhanced that capability with other software and can ask customers to take photos of their house and utility panel, for instance, to gather additional information without visiting.

At Insource Renewables in Pittsfield, roughly half the 19-person company’s installation staff has been unable to work in the field, and some have been shifted to office work and training. It’s still doing some outside work on rooftop installations, according to the owner, Vaughan Woodruff. He’s also waiting for the end of mud season to start work on a few ground-mounted systems.

Some larger solar projects that are mounted on the ground and at least one wind farm are moving forward, according to Matt Kearns, chief development officer at Longroad Energy.

Longroad, a national solar and wind developer with an office in Portland, is in the early stages of Three Corners Solar, a 100-megawatt project that will be sprinkled across 800 acres in Unity, Benton and Clinton. The project is still in its early stages with environmental studies running this spring. Wetland scientists and surveyors are able to maintain social distance as they work, Kearns said.

Construction is underway at a $150 million wind farm, Weaver Wind in Hancock County. Contractors are preparing the site for 22 turbines with a total capacity of 72 megawatts, enough to power 20,000 homes. The electricity will be sold to Emera Maine.

Turbines and tower sections are coming from overseas into Searsport, Kearns said, with blades expected in July.

AUDITS MAY GO VIRTUAL

One sector hit especially hard is home energy audits. Typically, a trained evaluator checks the building from top to bottom and hooks up a blower door, a piece of equipment that measures air leakage. Then a crew comes for insulation and air sealing. That process has stopped at occupied homes, although some audits are still being performed on vacant vacation houses, according to Michael Stoddard, executive director at Efficiency Maine.

Stoddard’s agency offers rebates for efficiency upgrades, and it registers auditors. Recently, he was contacted by counterparts in Massachusetts, where utilities are experimenting with virtual audits, in which homeowners use video chat apps and other technologies to help an auditor assess their home remotely. Stoddard said he’s curious to find out how useful that technique would be without a baseline blower door test.

Efficiency Maine also is pivoting to promote rebates for upgrades that can be done safely during the pandemic, such as lighting retrofits in vacant schools and outdoor lights in parking lots.

And Stoddard also opined that the crisis may delay progress on the state’s 100,000 heat pump goal, but that installations will get back on track over time. Even during a pandemic, Mainers still plan for next winter.

“Energy issues never go away in Maine,” Stoddard said.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:20 a.m. Thursday April 23, 2020 to indicate that Insource Renewables has retained its workforce.

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