2019 set records for renewable energy jobs

Source: By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A worker inspects a solar panel. Photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr

About 11.5 million workers — a record number — were employed worldwide by the renewable energy industry in 2019, according to new market research.

It’s an encouraging sign for the burgeoning field, though one that comes with an asterisk — as the figures provide a snapshot of a sector still largely unaffected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Solar jobs led the pack last year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. About 3.8 million employees were working in solar photovoltaic manufacturing and installations.

IRENA’s report shows that renewable energy employment expanded by roughly half a million last year, up from an estimated 11 million jobs in 2018. The agency says renewable energy employed roughly 7.7 million people in 2010.

The bulk of wind and solar jobs were found in China, while Southeast Asia and Latin America saw gains in labor-intensive agriculture production for the cultivation of biofuels plants, the agency said.

IRENA says about 63% of all renewable energy jobs in the world are found in Asia, mostly in China.

In terms of subsectors, the second-largest employer behind solar was liquid biofuels at about 2.5 million jobs. The remaining top areas for employment in low-carbon energy production were hydropower, followed by wind power, then solar heating and cooling, and finally solid biomass power, in that order.

Men still outnumber women 3 to 1 in renewable energy employment, but the industry was showing better female representation than the fossil fuel industry, said Rabia Ferroukhi, a director of policy at IRENA, during her presentation of the report’s key findings.

“Men hold a higher share, and for us achieving a better gender balance remains a high objective,” she said.

IRENA Executive Director Francesco La Camera concurred. “One dimension where we must do better is the gender balance,” he said. “Much remains to be done.”

The report puts the proportion of women employed in renewable energy at approximately 32% while “fossil fuels” industries employed about 22% women last year. The oil and gas industry has long struggled to recruit more women to its payrolls and raise its gender balance above some 20% female staff.

Left unanswered is the question of precisely how many renewable energy jobs have been lost in the economic havoc of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic-related job losses in clean energy exceed 500,000 in the United States alone, according to the market data and research firm Statista.

Though millions of renewable energy industry jobs are thought to have been lost due to the pandemic, La Camera said more aggressive state and investor support for renewable energy projects and technologies was the key to bringing the global economy back from the brink.

The report argues that green-minded economic recovery plans could expand renewable energy employment.

Despite the economic crisis, La Camera said it’s reasonable to expect that renewable energy jobs expand to 30 million positions by 2030. But La Camera argued that governments need to do more work to facilitate this growth. “We need proper industry, fiscal, trade, labor, education and skills training policies,” he said.

The IRENA report wasn’t all rosy. For example, it noted job losses in the wind power sector of India and Europe.

“Some renewable energy technologies have been much more dynamic than others,” Ferroukhi said.