Despite low oil prices, the clean-energy sector keeps on growing, and it now employs 8.1 million people worldwide. According to the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), this is an approximate 5 percent increase from last 2014. While that may not seem like a huge boost, just about any sector would boast about such a rate of growth.
For advocates of the “green jobs” movement, these numbers are encouraging even as some countries curtail their clean-energy programs. In the Middle East, for example, Saudi Arabia is lowering the bar for its ambitious solar expansion: Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that the nation will plan to install 9.5 gigawatts of solar power -- a mere quarter of the capacity its leaders targeted four years ago. The government of Japan, which has struggled to electrify the country since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, is pushing forward with plans to build as many as 47 coal-fired power plants. And the United Kingdom, where one clean-energy trade group claims job growth in renewables far outpaces other sectors, has seen the development in renewables decline as investors view the current Tory government as hostile to clean energy.
But in much of the world, renewables are on the upswing, creating a job market that has become more robust while the conventional energy sector sheds workers. In the United States, approximately 769,000 people work within the renewable energy industry. IRENA’s data suggest that overall U.S. job growth in this industry rose 6 percent in 2015, with employment in the solar power sector soaring by almost 22 percent to reach 209,000 jobs. Additional installations within the wind power sector led to similar increases: Wind employment rose by 21 percent to 88,000 workers.
Renewables continue to offer job opportunities even in countries with sputtering economies. In Brazil, for example, 918,000 people work in the clean-energy sector, with employment increasing in the wind and biodiesel industries. Halfway across the world, China, which has over 3.5 million working in the renewables sector, saw a slight decrease in employment last year, which IRENA attributes to increased automation and consolidation with the country’s solar industry. India, South Africa and Northern African countries also saw steady employment gains in the renewables sector.
Future growth in renewables will depend on government policy and, of course, the price of oil -- which briefly surpassed $50 yesterday. But where job growth is really making a difference is in developing countries, where renewables have become critical for expanding energy access while providing economic opportunities. Bangladesh, for example, now has 141,000 workers within the renewables sector, and the majority of them manufacture or install solar home systems. Companies including M-KOPA, which hired 22,000 workers across East Africa, serve as examples of how firms can be profitable while contributing to the rise of social enterprise in these nations.
Clean energy still has a long road ahead. Much of its expansion depends on the transfer of skills and continued training. And while IRENA suggests approximately 35 percent of workers in the global renewables industry are female — a higher ratio when compared to the energy sector at large, which employs 20 to 25 percent women — critics are quick to point out that the clean-energy industry is still a man’s world. But as IRENA’s study suggests, renewables -- once touted as a way to address climate change -- could become important for another role: alleviating poverty in many of the world’s poorest nations.
Image credits: 1) Leon Kaye; 2) IRENA