Overall worldwide job growth may still be sputtering in the wake of the global recession, but one industry just keeps churning out new jobs – renewable energy.
Nearly one million new green jobs were created in 2013 to reach 6.5 million overall jobs, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2014.
The new report outlines several major trends: An ever-expanding amount of green jobs across the globe, a clear shift toward developing economies, the chilling impact policy uncertainty has on green growth, and a looming shortage of skilled workers in many renewable energy technologies.
800,000 New Global Green Jobs in 2013
IRENA estimates 800,000 new green jobs were created in 2013, boosting the overall number of workers employed in the clean energy economy from 5.7 million in 2012 to 6.5 million at the end of 2013.
In order, the largest concentrations of green jobs were in China, Brazil, America, India, and Germany, with other noteworthy employment numbers in Spain and Bangladesh. IRENA cites these rankings as evidence of a regional clean energy economic shift away from the traditional leaders in developed nations toward emerging markets where energy poverty and growing demand must be addressed by policymakers.
As with most things energy-related, China is the world’s clear leader in green jobs, spurred largely by a boom in solar manufacturing and installation. The country currently has over 2.6 million green jobs, and 13 gigawatts (GW) of new solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in 2013 combined with 64% of global PV module manufacturing capacity helped employ 1.6 million workers last year – roughly a five-fold increase compared to 2011.
Comprehensive 2013 green job statistics weren’t available for the European Union, but IRENA relied upon 2012 data to rank the EU second overall with 1.2 million green jobs in 2012. Wind, solar PV, and biomass were the largest individual industry drivers, while Germany, France, Italy and Spain combined for 60% of all EU green jobs. Unlike other parts of the world, wind and solar slowed down overall in the EU, with industry consolidation and manufacturing relocation taking a toll on new jobs growth.
Brazil ranked third overall in IRENA’s report with nearly 900,000 green jobs, primarily on the strength of its dominant bioenergy industry. The highly labor-intensive ethanol/biodiesel sectors contributed 621,000 total jobs, even as mechanization reduced the number of overall direct jobs. Wind energy grew at a fast pace, but still remained a distant second with just 32,000 jobs.
The United States placed fourth overall with 625,000 green jobs, but America was a case study in policy volatility in 2013. On one hand, the solar industry grew 20% in 2013 to reach 143,000 jobs across all technologies, with more than half those jobs in installation. But on the other hand, overall wind industry employment fell from 80,700 jobs in 2012 to 50,500 jobs at the end of 2013 – primarily due to uncertainty over the Production Tax Credit (PTC). That’s a shame, too, because domestic manufacturing capacity has continued to climb, reaching 67% turbine domestic content at the end of 2012.
Southeast Asia also made notable strides toward a clean energy economy in 2013, with Bangladesh leading the world in small solar installations en route to 100,000 jobs, Japan checking in at 60,000 solar jobs, and Malaysia becoming a major solar manufacturer with nearly 10,000 jobs.
Dark Clouds On The Horizon?
But even though worldwide green jobs growth continues to accelerate, IRENA sees several notable storm clouds on the horizon. It may sound like a broken record, but once again, policy uncertainty is the largest threat to continued green growth.
Beyond the PTC fight’s impact on America’s wind industry, policy uncertainty has hampered the renewable energy industries in Australia and the EU. Policy reversals in Australia during 2013 gutted the country’s estimated 23,500 solar jobs, with a 22% decline in PV and 20% decline in solar heating – and 12,300 additional expected job losses in 2014.
Spain, once a world leader in renewables, has lost 23,700 green jobs due to policy changes after the economic downturn began in 2008. Jobs in Germany’s solar industry were halved between 2011 and 2013 and PV manufacturing jobs at the end of 2013 were just a third of 2012’s total.
A yawning skills gap in renewable energy technologies may also limit future growth across the world. IRENA cites a survey showing employers in many countries ranking several green job occupations as “difficult to fill” – namely engineers, analysts, and installers. The EU wind industry alone reports an annual shortage of 7,000 qualified personnel, which could double to 15,000 by 2030. Overall, 78% of companies say finding well-trained staff is either “difficult” or “very difficult.”
Green Jobs “No Longer A Niche”
Overall though, the growth of renewable energy has become a global economic success story, despite its challenges – and good policy decisions may help realize the world’s full green jobs potential.
“With 6.5 million people directly or indirectly employed in renewable energy, the sector is proving that it is no longer a niche, it has become a significant employer worldwide,” said Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA Director-General. “The insights into shifts along segments of the value-chain revealed in the report are developing policy that strengthens job growth in this important sector of the economy.”
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