Jobs in renewable energy expanding


Driven by the gathering sense of a climate crisis, the notion of 'green jobs' - especially in the renewable energy sector - is now receiving unprecedented attention.

Currently about 2.3 million people worldwide work either directly in renewables or indirectly in supplier industries. Given incomplete data, this is, in all likelihood, a conservative figure.

The wind power industry employs some 300,000 people, the solar photovoltaics (PV) sector accounts for an estimated 170,000 jobs and the solar thermal industry, at least 624,000. More than 1 million jobs are found in the biomass and biofuels sector. Small-scale hydropower and geothermal energy are far smaller employers.

Renewables tend to be a more labour-intensive energy source than the still-dominant fossil fuels, which rely heavily on expensive pieces of production equipment. A transition toward renewables thus promises job gains. Even in the absence of such a transition, growing automation and corporate consolidation are already translating into steadily fewer jobs in the oil, natural gas and coal industries - sometimes even in the face of expanding production.

Many hundreds of thousands of coal mining jobs have been shed in China, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and South Africa in the last 10 - 20 years. In the US, coal output rose by almost one-third during the past two decades, yet employment has been cut in half.

A handful of countries have emerged as leaders in renewables development, thanks to strong government support. A study commissioned by the German government found that in 2006, the country had some 259,000 direct and indirect jobs in the renewables sector. The number is expected to reach 400,000 - 500,000 by 2020, rising to 710,000 by 2030.

Spain also has seen its renewables industry expand rapidly in recent years. The industry now employs some 89,000 people directly (mostly in wind power and PV) and another 99,000 indirectly. Denmark has long been a leader in wind development. However, with policy support less steady in recent years, the number of domestic wind jobs has stagnated at about 21,000.

In the United States, federal policies have been weak and inconsistent over the years, leaving leadership to individual state governments. Still, a study for the American Solar Energy Society found that the US renewables sector employed close to 200,000 people directly in 2006 and another 246,000 indirectly.

India's Suzlon is one of the world's leading wind turbine manufacturers, further strengthening its position through its 2007 takeover of Germany's REpower. Manufacturing of wind turbine components, production of spare parts and turbine maintenance by Suzlon and other companies are helping to generate much-needed income and employment in India.

Suzlon currently employs more than 13,000 people directly - about 10,000 in India and the remainder in China, Belgium and the US.

China is rapidly catching up in solar PVs and wind turbine manufacturing and is already the dominant force in solar hot water and small hydropower development. According to rough estimates, close to a million people in China currently work in the renewables sector. To some extent, these numbers reflect China's low labour productivity compared with Western countries. This seems especially true in the solar thermal industry, which is thought to employ some 600,000 people.

The leaders in renewables technologies can expect considerable job gains in the near future in manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines for both domestic and export markets. Jobs in installing, operating and maintaining renewable energy systems tend to be more local in nature and could thus benefit a broad range of countries.

For instance, Kenya has one of the largest and most dynamic solar markets in the developing world. There are 10 major solar PV import companies and the country has an estimated 1,000 - 2,000 solar technicians. In Bangladesh, Grameen Shakti has installed more than 100,000 solar home systems in rural communities in a few years - one of the fastest-growing solar PV programs in the world - and is aiming for 1 million by 2015, along with the creation of some 100,000 jobs for local youth and women as solar technicians and repair and maintenance specialists.

Four countries - Brazil, US, China and Germany - are leading in biomass development. Brazil's ethanol industry is said to employ about 300,000 workers. Indonesia and Malaysia are leading palm oil producers - a small, but growing, share is being diverted there to biofuels production. Malaysia has an estimated half-million people employed in the palm oil industry (and another million people whose livelihoods are connected to it) - many of them Indonesian migrant workers. Indonesia is, itself, planning a major expansion and optimistic projections speak of 3.5 million new plantation jobs by 2010.

Following a wave of initial enthusiasm, there are now rising doubts about the environmental benefits and economic impacts of at least some types of biofuels. Biofuels processing typically requires higher skills and, thus, is likely to offer better pay than feedstock production and harvesting. However, most jobs are found at sugarcane and palm oil plantations, where wages and working conditions are often extremely poor.

According to the Woods Hole Research Center, India could create some 900,000 jobs by 2025 in biomass gasification. Of this total, 300,000 jobs would be with manufacturers of gasifier stoves (including masons, metal fabricators, etc.) and 600,000 would be in biomass production, processing into briquettes and pellets, supply chain operations and after-sales services. Another 150,000 people might find employment in advanced biomass cooking technologies.

While biofuels are now subject to more critical reviews on a number of fronts, the future looks promising for wind and solar. Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006 outlines three scenarios - conservative, moderate and advanced - for future worldwide wind energy development, assuming different rates of investments and capacity expansion.

Global wind power employment is projected to grow to as much as 2.1 million in 2030 and 2.8 million in 2050 under the advanced scenario. Solar Generation IV - a 2007 report by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association and Greenpeace International - similarly projects world­wide solar PV developments via three scenarios. By 2030, as many as 6.3 million jobs could be created under the best case scenario.

Expanding the role of renewables helps make other sectors of the economy - such as transportation and buildings - more sustainable - thus greening additional jobs to some degree.