The pandemic drove employment in Minnesota's renewable energy and conservation businesses down 10% to 55,329 last year, disrupting several years of double-digit growth.

"We expected to grow and we finished flat," said Michael Allen, co-founder of St. Paul-based All Energy Solar, which does residential and small commercial installations in several states.

But a turnaround in the renewable industry in Minnesota started about this time last year.

"You can see the potential in Minnesota's clean-energy sector in the rapid way jobs came back in the second half of 2020," said Executive Director Gregg Mast of the Clean Energy Economy Minnesota business coalition. "Business and technological innovation continues to drive down the cost of renewables. Demand for sustainable-energy solutions is growing."

The coronavirus outbreak in the first half of 2020 resulted in 11,500 clean-energy workers filing for unemployment, but about half of that number returned to work by the end of the year, according to the annual Clean Jobs Midwest report, released this month.

"We believe we can achieve 100,000 clean-energy jobs by 2030. And that will drive our economic recovery and deliver environmental and economic benefits to Minnesota," Mast said.

The report was released by sponsors E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) and nonprofits Clean Energy Trust and Clean Energy Economy Minnesota amid revelations that wind-and-solar power have become the cheapest forms of electrical energy and accommodating state-and-federal legislation.

The report doesn't include the ethanol industry — a considerably sized industry that supporters consider a green fuel.

Moreover, there is growing support by business, utilities and even some oil-and-gas companies, buoyed by public sentiment, that the economy must be powered by a lower-carbon engine that will mitigate the environmental damage and huge economic costs of increased weather volatility due to carbon-induced climate change. That also is a turbo-charged engine. In fact, jobs in renewable energy, energy-conservation software and related businesses are growing at double the overall job market in Minnesota.

Minnesota Power several months ago became the first Minnesota utility to generate 50% of its electricity from renewable sources. And zero-carbon electricity last year (of renewables and nuclear) generated 55% of Minnesota electricity, up from 48% in 2019, according to the 2021 Minnesota Energy Factsheet commissioned by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, using research by BloombergNEF.

Meanwhile Xcel Energy plans to close three coal-fired plants in Becker, Minn., by 2030. It will dramatically increase output from wind-and-solar generation over the next decade, plus starting two cleaner, smaller gas-fired plants that will move the nation's largest wind-generating utility closer to its no-carbon goal by 2050.

Big Minnesota companies, from C.H. Robinson to Ecolab and Pentair, are aggressively growing their greener, low-carbon and water-conserving businesses. And 1 in 3 jobs created by Minnesota solar, wind or auto-components manufacturers that supply the electric-and-hybrid vehicle markets are created in rural Minnesota, according to the Clean Jobs Midwest report.

Just as wind has become a stable cash-crop for farmers who lease land for turbines, solar developers are installing solar arrays on marginal rural lands, sometimes accompanied by native grasses that farm animals graze, or honey-bee operations.

Farmer Nathan Dahlke of Green Isle, Minn., last year leased 8 marginal acres to Minneapolis-based Nokomis Energy for a solar development that provides low-cost electricity and improvements to a community school, jobs and economic activity.

"While we are still in the early stages of deploying clean energy across the Upper Midwest, the local benefits are obvious," Joe Stofega, a Nokomis partner, said in a statement. "Lower electricity rates … utilization of low-value land, investment in electric infrastructure, private investment and lots of local, well-paying jobs."

Minnesota employs more clean-energy workers than lawyers, accountants, web developers and real estate agents combined, according to the clean-energy jobs report. That's businesses ranging from Bloomington-based 75F, a building-climate software firm that recently raised $28 million in capital, to Blattner Energy of Avon, near St. Cloud. It directly employs 350 and thousands of contract laborers who have built more than 450 wind-and-solar projects.

Minnesota's clean-energy industry should grow by up to 10% this year, creating jobs and development that also will shrink emissions harmful to the environment.

As for All Energy Solar, Allen said the company's sales are up 30% this year and the company's staff has grown 25% to 185 people.

"We would hire 10 people today for our training program, if we could find them. Electricians and installers," he said. "Our installers make $50,000 to $70,000 a year and electricians can make $100,000-plus."