World demand grows for renewable energy, boosting related jobs by 14%

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Surging demand for renewable energy pushed global employment in the solar, wind and biofuels energy sectors to 6.5 million in 2013, a 14 percent increase from 2012, according to new figures released this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency.

“Renewable energy employment continues to spread to more and more countries. Nonetheless, the bulk of employment remains concentrated in a small number of countries: China, Brazil, the United States, India, Germany and Spain,” states the report issued by the Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates-based trade group.China was the world’s No. 1 renewable energy sector employer for 2013 with 2.64 million workers, riding its dominant position in the manufacture and distribution of solar photovoltaic equipment as well as solar heating and cooling systems, according to the group’s “Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review” for 2014.

While exact figures are elusive due to varying reporting standards, China is believed to employ roughly 1.6 million people in the solar PV sector, or roughly 70 percent of the world’s entire solar PV employment, which stands at 2.3 million. Overall, global solar PV employment rose globally by nearly 900,000 workers between 2012 and 2013.

While much of the solar job market has shifted from the United States and Europe toward Asia in recent years, IRENA notes that “manufacturing employment in solar PV has experienced some turbulence as intensified competition, overcapacities and tumbling prices have layoffs and bankruptcies among manufacturers.”

The second-largest sector in terms of renewable energy employment for 2013 was liquid biofuels, which employed 1.45 million people, according to IRENA, followed by wind power (834,000), biomass (782,000), and solar heating and cooling (503,000).

China is top employer

The United States remained the largest producer of liquid biofuels, which includes ethanol and biodiesel, in 2013, but Brazil was the sector’s largest employer thanks to its heavy use of labor-intensive sugar cane harvesting and processing techniques to make biofuels.

Global employment in the wind energy sector was estimated at 834,000 jobs for 2013, with declines in the United States and key European countries “offset by positive impulses in China and Canada,” according to the report. Europe remained the largest employer in the offshore wind energy sector at 58,000 jobs, led by the United Kingdom and Germany.

By country, the top five employers in the renewable energy sector for 2013 were China (2.64 million), Brazil (894,000), the United States (625,000), India (391,000) and Germany (371,000).

In the United States, employment grew solidly in the solar PV sector, especially in areas of project development and installation, according to IRENA. The U.S. solar sector reported an estimated 143,000 jobs in 2013, up 20 percent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, U.S. wind energy jobs declined from 80,400 in December 2012 to 50,500 jobs at the end of 2013, a factor attributed to a steep drop-off in new wind energy projects during the latter half of 2012 as uncertainty loomed over the federal government’s production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy.

U.S. bioethanol employment remained largely stagnant in 2013 after dropping from 181,300 jobs in 2011 to 173,300 jobs in 2012. The 2012 drop was attributed to “soaring feedstock prices, a drought-induced decline in yield, and lower demand,” according to the report.