There may now be as many as 6.5 million direct and indirect jobs in renewable energy, according to updated data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Earlier assessments had put the global estimate at 2.3 million jobs in 2008 (United Nations Environment Programme) and at 5 million jobs in 2012 (International Labour Organization).
Although these estimates suggest a strong expansion in employment in renewable energy, the figures also represent successive efforts to broaden data collection across countries and sectors, wrote Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner and IRENA's Rabia Ferroukhi, Arslan Khalid, and Alvaro Lopez-Peña in the Worldwatch Institute's latest Vital Signs Online trend (www.worldwatch.org).
The overall upward trend in renewable energy jobs has been accompanied by considerable turmoil in some industries. Nowhere are the upheavals more noticeable than in the solar photovoltaic (PV) sector, where intensified competition, massive overcapacities, and tumbling prices have caused a high degree of turbulence in the last two to three years, but they have also triggered a boom in installations. Global PV employment is thought to have expanded from 1.4 million jobs in 2012 to as many as 2.3 million in 2013.
Solar PV has bypassed biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) as the top renewable energy job generator. Most of the 1.45 million biofuels jobs are found in the growing and harvesting of feedstock such as sugar cane, corn or palm oil. This involves physically demanding manual work, and workers often contend with oppressive workplace conditions. Processing of the feedstock into fuels offers far fewer jobs, but the ones created are higher skilled and they pay better.
Employment in the next-largest renewables sector, wind power, is estimated to run to some 834,000 jobs. Uncertainty about the future direction of policies in several countries weakened job creation in this field in 2013, leading to a sharp drop in new installations in the United States and to weak markets in large parts of Europe and in India. In contrast, developments in China and Canada were more positive.
Countries that are home to half of the world's population-China, members of the European Union, Brazil, the United States, and India-account for the bulk of renewable energy employment: 5.8 million direct and indirect (supply chain) jobs out of 6.5 million worldwide.
Better information is necessary for a range of countries to generate a more complete and accurate renewable energy employment picture. Attention is also needed on the question of whether development of renewable energy leads to job loss elsewhere, including in the conventional energy industries.
All in all, available information suggests that renewable energy has grown to become a significant source of jobs. Rising labor productivity notwithstanding, the job numbers are likely to grow in coming decades as the world's energy system shifts toward low-carbon sources.
Country Highlights from the Report:
- China is the largest employer in the renewable energy sector. The latest estimates by the country's National Renewable Energy Center suggest almost 1.6 million jobs in the solar PV industry in 2013. Other major sources of renewables employment provide close to 1 million jobs.
- European Union member states had more than 1.2 million renewable energy jobs in 2012. Even though Germany suffered some job losses in 2013, the country remains the dominant renewable energy employer in Europe, with about 371,000 jobs. Spain's renewables sector has been hit hard by economic crisis and a series of adverse government policy changes. The country suffered a net loss of 23,700 jobs between 2008 and 2012, or 17 percent.
- In Brazil, renewable energy is largely synonymous with sugarcane-based ethanol. A factor of rising importance is the growing mechanization of sugarcane harvesting, which has brought the number of direct jobs down from 460,000 in 2006 to 331,000 in 2012, even as ethanol processing jobs increased.
- In the United States, the number of wind and ethanol jobs has fluctuated, but solar employment has been rising fast. In the wind sector, the stop-and-go nature of the U.S. Production Tax Credit has affected employment, with the 92 percent drop in new wind installations during 2013 resulting in a decline from 80,700 jobs in 2012 to 50,500 jobs in 2013. U.S. ethanol employment fell in 2012 because of rising feedstock prices, reduced yields due to drought, and lower demand, although conditions improved and employment stabilized in 2013. Solar employment was close to 143,000 jobs in 2013, a gain of 20 percent.
- In most other countries, the number of renewable energy jobs is still limited, and often there is simply no reliable information at all.