Renewable jobs grow, but rate slows — report

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The growth rate of renewable energy employment slowed this year, but it remained positive even as jobs in the energy sector fell overall, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency.

“The continued job growth in the renewable energy sector is significant because it stands in contrast to trends across the energy sector,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin in a statement.

Renewable energy, excluding hydropower, employed more than 8.1 million people worldwide in 2015, a 5 percent increase over the prior year, according to the report, which was released yesterday. Large hydropower employs an estimated additional 1.3 million people.

The largest employer was photovoltaics — including manufacturing, installation and operation — followed by biofuels, and then wind energy. China led the global charge, with more than 3.5 million jobs and adding more than one-third of new renewable energy capacity in 2015.

“There is a shift toward Asian countries due to strong renewable energy policies and competitive manufacturing technologies,” said report author Rabia Ferroukhi in a conference call yesterday.

She noted that countries employed workers in different parts of the renewable energy supply chain. In China’s photovoltaic sector, 80 percent of jobs were in manufacturing, while manufacturing represented less than 15 percent of solar jobs in the United States. The bulk of photovoltaic jobs in the United States were in installation, which accounted for 57 percent.

Growth in renewable energy persisted even as job numbers in the energy sector as a whole fell, driven by slow demand and low prices for coal, oil and natural gas. In the United States, renewable energy jobs grew by 6 percent in 2015, while oil and gas employment shrank by 18 percent, according to the report.

“Renewable energy, in terms of generation, does not compete with oil,” Ferroukhi said. “As a result of that, the effect [of low oil prices] was quite small.”

By 2030, renewable energy will employ 24 million people around the world, the report projected.

However, the growth rate of renewable energy jobs fell to 5 percent in 2015 from 18 percent in 2014. Ferroukhi attributed this to business consolidation in the market, greater automation in manufacturing and leftover stock from the prior year.

She added that adding up jobs numbers from countries is challenging, since many nations have different levels of resolution on employment and some don’t track renewable energy employment as its own category. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shut down its green jobs monitoring program in 2013 after funding cuts, for example.

As a result, IRENA’s job numbers are likely lower than what they are in the real world. “Our estimate is quite conservative,” Ferroukhi said.

As for accounting for jobs in hydropower separately, she noted that the sector is notorious for large shifts in employment from year to year, driven by regulations and investments in large projects. “It doesn’t necessarily give a solid picture of the industry,” she said.

The new study also reported the results of a survey of 90 renewable energy companies across 40 countries, showing that women made up an average of 35 percent of the renewable energy workforce. This is larger than the 20 to 25 percent share of jobs that women hold in the energy sector as a whole, but less than the 40 to 50 percent range of women’s labor share across most of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Steve Herz, a senior attorney at the Sierra Club, said the report shows that nations can grow their economies while stewarding the environment. “The idea that there’s a trade-off between these things is illusory,” he said. “It shows how vibrant the clean energy sector is.”

Renewable energy is poised to grow further as nations start fulfilling their commitments to fight climate change outlined during negotiations in France late last year. “I think it’s going to accelerate as countries implement policies to meet their targets from Paris,” Herz said. “The general trend is very clear.”

In the United States, policies like the extension of the production tax credit for wind energy are likely to keep driving employment and deployment in renewable energy. The American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) estimated that extending these incentives will lead to $73 billion in investment in renewables in the United States by 2021.

Demand from consumers and companies looking to procure renewable power is also driving job growth. “It’s a combination of both,” said James Hewett, program manager at ACORE. “We’re also seeing utilities increasingly use more renewable power based on cost.”