A boom in solar and wind power jobs in the US led the way to a global increase in renewable energy employment to more than 8 million people in 2015, according to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).
More than 769,000 people were employed in renewable energy in the US in 2015, dwarfing the 187,000 employed in the oil and gas sector and the 68,000 in coal mining. The gap is set to grow further, with jobs in solar and wind growing by more than 20% in 2015, while oil and gas jobs fell by 18% as the fossil fuel industry struggled with low prices.
Across the world, employment in renewable energy grew by 5% in 2015, boosted by supportive government policies and subsidies including tax credits in the US, although jobs in renewables fell in Europe. The growth was despite renewable energy subsidies being far outweighed by subsidies for fossil fuels, where jobs were lost.
Another contrast, according to the Irena report, is the greater proportion of women employed in renewable energy compared to the wider energy sector. Irena found 35% of renewable energy sector jobs were held by women, compared to 20-25% in the wider energy sector, although the agency noted the renewables percentage remains lower than women’s overall share in employment of 40-50% in most OECD countries.
Renewables employment fell in the European Union for the fourth year running, due to the Eurozone economic crisis and the cutting of subsidies and other support. The UK employed 112,000 people in renewables in 2015, according to Irena. The report said: “The UK became the continent’s largest [solar panel] installation market, and the second-largest [solar] employer with 35,000 people. However, cuts in feed-in tariffs for residential rooftops in the UK could result in a loss of 4,500 to 8,700 solar jobs according to UK government’s own estimates.
Irena director general, Adnan Amin, said: “The continued job growth in the [global] renewable energy sector is significant because it stands in contrast to trends across the energy sector.” He said the increase is being driven by rapidly falling costs for renewable energy and expect the trend to continue as renewables become ever more competitive and as countries move to achieve the targets pledged in a global climate change deal agreed in Paris in December.
“Even without a price on carbon, renewable energy is competing with dirty energy and winning,” said Ben Schreiber, at Friends of the Earth US. “The question isn’t whether renewable energy supplants fossil fuels, but whether fossil fuels companies can delay the transition long enough to destroy the climate.”
The estimate of 8m renewables jobs included those working in manufacturing, installation and maintenance. It did not include large hydropower schemes, for which less robust data is available, but Irena estimated this sector to employ 1.3 million people in 2015.
The solar photovoltaic (PV) industry was the biggest renewables employer in 2015, with 2.8m jobs worldwide, an 11% increase. About 60% of these were in China, with Japan and the US also significant employers. Japan’s solar PV employment rose by 28% but the country is also being criticised for a large coal expansion plan.
Liquid biofuel was the next biggest renewables sector, with 1.7m jobs, with Brazil and the US the largest nations. However, employment fell by 6% in part due to increasing mechanization. Biodiesel production from palm oil in Indonesia plummeted by 50%, amid concerns that its environmental impact can actually be worse than fossil fuels.
The third biggest sector was wind power, employing 1.1 million people, up 5% compared to 2014. Other important sectors included solar thermal – using the sun to heat water – and solid biomass.
China added a third of the world’s new renewable energy in 2015 and employed 3.5 million people in the sector. But while employment rose in solar PV and wind, they were offset by losses in the solar thermal and small hydropower sectors, leading to an overall job decline of 2% in the country.
In Europe, solar PV employment in 2015 was a third of its peak in 2011, as economic problems led to subsidy cuts and as solar panel manufacturing moved to Asia.