Andreas Späth

Want to create jobs? Go for renewable energy

2016-06-06 14:22

Andreas Wilson-Späth

What job advice do you give youngsters these days? I’ve got two teenage sons and while neither of them is quite sure about what profession they eventually want to go into, the time to start making those sorts of decisions is approaching.

If either of them decides to find employment in the renewable energy business – solar or wind power generation, for instance – I’d be very happy. Not just because of my own green obsession, but because that’s where many new and exciting job opportunities and careers can be found. Two recently published reports illustrate this nicely.

According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century’s (REN21) latest annual status report, an estimated 147 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power production capacity – about 77% of it in the form of new solar and wind power installations – was added globally in 2015. That’s the largest year-on-year increase on record and approximately equivalent to all of Africa’s currently existing power generation capability.

The report points out that “the world now adds more renewable power capacity annually than it adds (net) capacity from all fossil fuels combined”.

The industry continues to make technological advances, including in energy efficiency and storage, and even though fossil fuel prices fell dramatically, last year saw new investments in green power and fuels rise to US$ 285.9 billion from US$273 billion in 2014.

In 2015, the world spent more than twice as much on building new renewable energy plants than on new coal and gas-fired power stations.

Significantly, this expansion didn’t just happen in the form of very large projects, but also in systems designed to supply small communities and individual households through mini power grids and roof-top solar panels, much of it in the developing world. According to REN21, Bangladesh is the planet’s largest market for solar home systems, while a number of African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are also registering significant growth in this area.

In 2015, developing countries, led by China, India and Brazil (and to a lesser extent, South Africa, Mexico and Chile) outdid developed countries in new renewable energy investments for the first time. China is the world’s biggest investor in renewable power and fuels, total installed renewable power generation capacity and solar water heating (although Denmark has the highest renewable power capacity per capita).

A second report, this one was released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in May, assesses the impact green energy is having on the global job market.

Last year, the worldwide renewable energy sector employed over 8.1 million people, up by 5% compared to 2014. This figure excludes the 1.3 million individuals who work in large-scale hydropower. Most of the new jobs are in solar energy, followed by liquid biofuels and wind power.

At 3.523 million, China offers by far the largest number of renewable energy jobs, followed by Brazil with 918,000. In the USA, which has 769,000 green energy jobs, employment in the solar power business grew by 22% in 2015. That’s twelve times faster than in the rest of the economy.

IRENA estimates that South Africa’s renewable energy industry employs some 28,000 workers – more than any other country on the continent.

Compared to the fossil fuel industry, renewable power companies employ a significantly larger proportion of women, although overall, the sector remains skewed towards male employees.

So things are looking good for the global green energy industry. And it’s not just a flash in the pan. According to IRENA’s Director-General Adnan Z. Amin, the increase in jobs “is being driven by declining renewable energy technology costs and enabling policy frameworks”. He says that he expects “this trend to continue as the business case for renewables strengthens and as countries move to achieve their climate targets agreed in Paris.”

The authors of the REN21 report agree, emphasising that rapid growth “is driven by several factors, including the improving cost-competiveness of renewable technologies, dedicated policy initiatives, better access to financing, energy security and environmental concerns, growing demand for energy in developing and emerging economies, and the need for access to modern energy. Consequently, new markets for both centralised and distributed renewable energy are emerging in all regions”.

Given all of these encouraging figures and trends, it’s important to keep in mind, of course, that fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – still supply over three quarters of the world’s total energy consumption. We still have a long way to go towards sustainability.

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