Working with the weather

Paul Whitacre10 August 2018

Energy is important to maintaining life as we know it, and helping to sustain this way of life are millions of valuable employees who work with the weather. This poses the question: what exactly does employment look like – and what might it become – in the renewable energy sector?

In a recent report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it was estimated that renewable energy employed 10.3 million people in 2017, up 5.3% from the 9.8 million jobs in 2016. 1,2 In fact, worldwide renewable energy employment has grown considerably since IRENA’s first annual assessment in 2012, up over 44% across a five-year period.3 This increase in jobs is largely driven by the falling costs of renewable energy technologies, spurring increased deployment of renewables.4

Employment remains highly concentrated in countries such as China, Brazil, India, Germany, Japan and the United States (US).5 Growth in employment can be mostly attributed to China and India, with contraction in renewable energy jobs a theme across the United States, Japan and the European Union.6 In the US specifically, initial analysis suggested that the solar tariffs (announced in January by the Trump administration) could reduce installations by 11% over the next five years and lead to the loss of up to 23,000 jobs this year alone.7

Of the energy types, the solar PV industry was the largest employer, representing almost 3.4 million jobs (up 9% from the previous year),8 while jobs in wind and in solar heating and cooling declined.9 According to IRENA, a key feature of the current solar landscape is that jobs remain highly concentrated in a small number of countries where the majority of panel manufacturing takes place – led by Asia, representing 88% globally, 7% in the US and 3% in Europe.10

In the US, findings revealed that utilities were responsible for at least 25% of solar jobs, while nearly 350,000 people spent time working on manufacturing, installing, distributing or providing professional services to solar technologies across the country in 2017.11 However, research also suggests that data on the US solar sector may not be fully capturable and has therefore been dramatically underestimated.12 Nonetheless, some solar employers are said to expect an increase in employment by 5% this year.13

In Australia, the construction of wind and solar projects has helped create thousands of new jobs in the last year.14 According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are now 14,820 full-time equivalent roles in renewable energy production – almost half of which came from rooftop solar.15 Indeed, the Australian renewable energy sector is said to be experiencing unprecedented activity, with at least 61 projects under construction, committed or set for completion this year – delivering more than $11 billion in investment and creating more than 6,861 direct jobs across the country.16 The Clean Energy Council (CEC) noted that growth was occurring due to a number of reasons: cost reductions for renewables, support from various renewable agencies, initiatives, and state and territory governments, as well as bipartisan support for the 2020 Renewable Energy Target (RET).17 And as New Energy Solar discussed earlier, Australia appears to be on track to meet its 2020 RET, with the Clean Energy Regulator anticipating 2018 to be a bigger year for clean energy in Australia than the year before. The CEC also noted that regional parts of the country could benefit from job opportunities created from the pipeline of projects, while the projects themselves could provide flow-on benefits to many of the businesses involved.18

While time will tell how fluctuations in demand, regulatory activity, policy changes and cost could impact employment growth for the global renewables sector, the number of jobs in this field has still grown and could continue to do so as the world continues its transition towards clean energy.

Paul joined New Energy Solar as Asset Manager in November 2017 to lead asset management activities. He has more than 37 years’ experience in a variety of operational, engineering, construction, projects, business development and commercial management roles within the power generation, consulting and insurance industries.

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