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Global Renewable Energy Employment Gains Ground, Increases to 11 Million, Despite Headwinds

Courtesy IRENA 2019 Renewable Energy and Jobs — Annual Review

Eleven million people were employed in the renewable energy sector worldwide as of year-end 2018, up 6.8% from 10.3 million in 2017, according to IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency).

Employment in the renewable energy sector in nations around the world continues to grow and reach new heights despite slower growth in leading markets and significant policy headwinds— China's transition to a new renewables grid-parity policy, the Trump administration's ongoing bias in favor of coal and fossil fuels, and scaling down and phasing out of feed-in tariffs in Europe prominent among them.

Renewable energy sector employment is expanding geographically, but by and large remains concentrated in a handful of countries. China, Brazil, the US, the European Union continue to be market leaders. Six in 10 of the global renewable energy workforce can be found in Asia. Just shy of one in four (39%) are employed in China. Furthermore, women account for nearly one-third of global renewable energy sector employment (32%), IRENA highlights in its 2019 Renewable Energy and Jobs — Annual Review.

Employment across renewable energy technology sectors

Among renewable energy technology sectors, the solar PV sector continued to employ more people than any other, accounting for one-third of total net employment last year, according to IRENA. Geographically, Asia outranks other world regions by a long shot with solar companies across the region employing more than 3 million— 9 of 10 people employed in the renewable energy sector globally. In addition, "rising off-grid solar sales are translating into growing numbers of jobs in the context of expanding energy access and spurring economic activities in previously isolated communities," IRENA highlights.

Some 1.2 million people worldwide were employed in the wind energy sector. China alone accounted for 44% of global wind employment, followed by Germany and the US. The vast majority of the wind energy sector workforce is employed onshore, but IRENA notes there's significant prospects for growth given declining costs and increasing investments in new or nascent markets, such as the US, as well as synergies between offshore wind power and offshore oil & gas project development and industry.

China surpassed Europe in offshore wind energy investment for the first time in 2018, IRENA highlights. In addition, "IRENA points out that the US and North African markets have also begun converting oil and gas experience into offshore wind jobs. Off-grid renewables – along with expanding electricity access – have contributed to job creation across Africa and Asia."

Hydroelectric power generation continues to be the single largest renewable energy resource worldwide, but growth has been slowing, according to IRENA. By IRENA's count, 2.1 million people worldwide are directly employed in the hydroelectric power generation sector, 75% of them in operations and maintenance.

IRENA cites other key takeaways from its latest annual global review of renewable energy employment:

  • PV employment expanded in India, Southeast Asia and Brazil, while jobs were lost in China, the United States, Japan and the European Union lost jobs in 2018

  • Rising output pushed biofuel jobs up 6% to 2.1 million. Brazil, Colombia, and Southeast Asia have labor-intensive supply chains where informal work is prominent, whereas operations in the United States and the European Union are far more mechanized.

  • Hydropower employs 2.1 million people directly, three quarters of whom are in operations and maintenance. The sector has the largest installed capacity of all renewables but is now expanding slowly.

"Renewable energy delivers on all main pillars of sustainable development: environmental, economic and even social. Alongside declining costs and steadily improving technologies, the transition to renewables is also creating numerous employment opportunities," IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera stated in the report's introduction.

"Beyond pursuing climate goals, many governments have prioritized renewables as a driver of low-carbon economic growth. Diversification of the supply chain has broadened the sector’s geographic footprint beyond a few leading markets, as more countries link sustainable technology choices to broader socioeconomic benefits. Increasingly, countries envisage a domestic renewable energy industry taking the place of unsustainable fossil-based industries.

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