Renewable Energy Continues Robust Job Growth

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - A lot of people have said that switching from fossil fuels to renewables would hurt the economy. They said it would raise energy prices and cost jobs. So far, those fears have mostly gone unfounded. Of course, there have been job losses in sectors directly related to fossil fuel production. Coal producing regions have been particularly hard hit, though even in those areas, change can mean opportunity.

At the same time, job growth in renewable energy has been robust. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), 8.1 million people were working in the renewable energy sector at the end of last year. That’s an increase of 5% over the previous year. Those numbers do not include the estimated 1.3 million people working in large-scale hydropower, which is not always counted among renewables. To put that in perspective, there are roughly 8 million people in the US working in the financial sector.

The increase stands in marked contrast to the oil and gas sector which has seen job losses. In the US, renewable jobs grew by 6% while oil and gas employment dropped by 18%. China, the world’s largest economy, now employs 3.5 million in renewables as opposed to 2.6 million in oil and gas.

Both declining costs and enabling policy frameworks are considered key job growth drivers.

Breaking it down, the highest renewable job numbers were found in included China, Brazil, the United States, India, Japan and Germany. Solar PV accounted for the largest share with 2.8 million jobs, followed by liquid biofuels with 1.7 million jobs, and wind power with 1.1 million.

This progress on the jobs front correlates well with overall growth in renewable power. Growth in renewable power consumption grew by more than 13% last year, compared to growth in overall energy consumption, which was less than 3%. In the decade from 2004-13 renewable generation capacity has grown by 559%. According to IEA, as of last year, renewables comprised 9.2% of energy consumption by OECD countries. IEA also predicts that by 2020, renewables will account for more than 26% of global capacity, which is more than the current combined consumption of China, India and Brazil.

Driven by declining costs, much future growth is expected in developing countries, particularly in areas like sub-Saharan Africa. According to IEA Director Fatih Birol, “Affordable renewables are set to dominate the emerging power systems of the world. With excellent hydro, solar and wind resources, improving cost-effectiveness and policy momentum, renewables can play a critical role in supporting economic growth and energy access in sub-Saharan Africa, meeting almost two-thirds of the region’s new demand needs over the next five years.”

The IEA report further points out that continued growth will depend on sustained investment, which, in turn, is subject to “regulatory barriers, grid constraints, and macroeconomic conditions” in developing countries, and the continued scaling down of fossil fuel plants in developed countries. These efforts continue to meet resistance in some areas. Any wavering on the policy front, due to political or economic issues, could frighten off investors, causing shortfalls in the predicted progress, and thereby putting most living systems in peril.

Image credit: Richard Masoner/Cyclicious: Flickr Creative Commons