Renewable energy investment and deployment is paying off, and in spades, when it comes to addressing a basic issue plaguing developed and developing countries alike: an inability to generate jobs that pay a good living wage. Around the world, renewable energy job creation continues to far outpace that for economies overall.
Some 7.7 million people are now employed across the global renewable energy value chain, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). That's up 18 percent from 6.5 million in 2014, the agency noted in its 2015 Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review.
In terms of technology, companies in the business of solar photovoltaic (PV) energy employ more people than any other renewable energy market segment, with most people employed in “downstream” jobs such as installing PV systems. Geographically, China's renewable energy companies employ more people than any other country. Rounding out IRENA's ranking of the top 10 countries in terms of renewable energy jobs are Brazil, the United States, India, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, France, Bangladesh and Colombia.
Studying the impacts of renewable energy job growth
Studies conclude that renewable energy deployment generates twice as many jobs, or more, compared to fossil fuel development.
Growing renewable energy investment and deployment, moreover, is doing much more than providing electrical power in countries around the world. It's helping governments, businesses and societies address a wide range of critical, interconnected social and environment issues. Renewable energy job creation, for example, is driving down the greenhouse gas emissions that are the main culprit causing rapid shifts in climate, as well as other forms of ecosystems destruction and natural resource degradation.
IRENA solicits data and information from its 140-plus members, along with a variety of other qualified sources, spanning a growing range of variables pertaining to employment and the overall impacts of renewable energy. The agency is seeing much more interest on the part of governments, as well as private-sector companies, in collecting more and better data, Dr. Rabia Ferroukhi, who heads up IRENA's socioeconomic research team, explained in an interview.
Highlights of IRENA's 2015 annual renewable energy jobs review include:
- In 2014, the solar PV sector accounted for 2.5 million jobs, two-thirds of which were in China. Solar PV jobs also grew in Japan, while decreasing in the European Union.
- Biofuels (1.8 million), biomass (822,000) and biogas (381,000) are also major employers, with jobs concentrated in the feedstock supply. While Brazil and the United States continued to dominate, Southeast Asia saw growth in biofuel jobs, reflecting measures to support production.
- Wind employment crossed the 1 million mark, with China accounting for half of these jobs. The United States, Brazil and the European Union also saw gains.
- Solar water heating and cooling employed 764,000 people, more than three-quarters of them in China. Other significant markets are India, Brazil and the European Union.
- Small hydropower employed about 209,000 people, more than half in China, followed by the European Union, Brazil and India.
- Large hydropower was estimated to support another 1.5 million direct jobs, mostly in China and largely in construction and installation.
- An array of industrial and trade policies continues to shape employment, with stable and predictable policies favoring job creation.
The manifold benefits of clean energy access
Energy access has been and continues to be a focal point of IRENA's socioeconomic research, Dr. Ferroukhi explained. Access to affordable, reliable clean energy is not only a direct driver of job creation in renewable energy businesses, but it also fosters job creation indirectly -- in what's known as induced employment.
Significantly, growing access to renewable energy addresses social discontent in developed and developing countries alike. Moreover, it's a major driver of reductions in greenhouse gases and other forms of environmental pollution that is threatening water, marine, forest and agricultural resource bases.
Environmental concerns and energy security, along with energy access, are issues near and dear to the IRENA research unit's heart, Dr. Ferroukhi said. “We're seeing that renewable energy investment, deployment and job creation is having positive impacts socially and environmentally.” Early results “clearly show the impact [renewable energy deployment] is having on emissions reductions,” she added.
Renewable energy job growth, for example, helps governments quell social discontent, an attribute that's particularly beneficial, even critical, in the Middle East and Africa region that Abu Dhabi-based IRENA calls home. With fast-growing young populations, governments need to come up with and quickly implement effective methods to spur employment among the region's youth.
"Job creation is an important element in defining renewable energy strategies and in terms of crafting policies not only regarding energy, but in terms of industrial development, trade, natural resource management and education,” Dr. Ferrouki explained.
Locking-in the course for future generations
Decisions on energy, Dr. Ferroukhi pointed out, will “lock-in societies on development paths for a long time to come.” Decisions made today, she continued, “will determine the impacts of climate change for young and future generations, as well as the outlook for jobs, economic opportunity and environmental health.
“We need to make sure today's decision-makers take these into account and institute policies today that can maximize the benefits of renewable energy investment and deployment.”
IRENA predicts that if renewable energy deployment doubles by 2030, employment across the value chain would rise to 17 million jobs.
One key aspect in this regard is the need for governments to institute much more in the way of renewable energy education and training. “There's a skills shortage, and we really need to address that now in order to double the amount of installed renewable power generation capacity,” Dr. Ferroukhi pointed out.
Overall, there's cause for cautious optimism, she added. The results of the agency's 2015 annual review “shows there's great potential” for renewable energy as a keystone of worldwide sustainable development. “But it's not going to happen in and of itself,” she said. “Government leaders need to put the right incentives and policies in place to attract developers and investment in order to maximize the benefits of deployment, which includes industrial, trade and educational policies and programs.”
*Image credits: IRENA, "Renewable Energy Jobs Annual Review 2015"
An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.