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New Study Says Green Jobs Debate Should Be Looking Forward

A new study conducted by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) provides more ammunition for proponents of green energy, showing that renewable energy and energy efficiency create up to ten times more jobs than fossil fuels. However, the authors prefaced their report by suggesting that the industry should look beyond the immediate employment benefits and short-term gains, and look towards long-term economic growth.

According to the study, conducted by UKERC’s Technology and Policy Assessment team, which analysed data from fifty studies published since 2000, found that on average:

  • Electricity from coal and gas creates 0.1-0.2 gross jobs per gigawatt-hour generated
  • Electricity from wind creates 0.05-0.5 gross job per gigawatt-hour generated
  • Energy efficiency creates 0.3-1.0 gross jobs per gigawatt-hour saved
  • Electricity from solar creates 0.4-1.1 gross jobs per gigawatt-hour generated

Immediate versus Long-term

The report, Low carbon jobs: The evidence for net job creation from policy support for energy efficiency and renewable energy, makes the case that the immediate benefits of more jobs should not be the primary reason for increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency policies. Rather, the debate should focus more on how renewable energy and energy efficiency can play in creating a broader industrial and environmental strategy.

“Government-led investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency can offer short-term benefits, helping the economy to grow in times of recession by promoting employment,” said Dr Will Blyth from Oxford Energy Associates, who led the two-year research project.

“When the economy is starting to recover – such as now – the key challenge for government policy is to encourage an economically efficient transition towards the country’s strategic goals – such as tackling climate change. Here there is a strong case for investment in renewable technologies and efficiency measures as part of the transformational change to a low carbon energy system.”

Jobs by renewable sector

Chart Credit: Low carbon jobs: The evidence for net job creation from policy support for energy efficiency and renewable energy

Broadening the Scope

The employment benefits of the renewable energy industry have long been a bullet in the chamber for clean energy proponents, who highlight the number of new jobs that are created with various projects and investment strategies. Virtually ever project announcement will be accompanied by an approximation of how many jobs will be created during construction, and during the project’s lifespan.

However, the UKERC report broadens the scope of the debate by looking beyond the immediate benefits such projects and investment and policy strategies have.

Beyond the Simplistic

Despite finding that renewable energy and energy efficiency create up to 1 job per gigawatt-hour more than fossil fuels — especially beneficial in times of economic downturn — “the evidence on long-term job creation is equivocal.” According to the report’s authors, energy industry employment needs to be considered “in the light of wider macroeconomic questions.” For example, “if the economy is near full employment then high labour intensity may not provide a strong rationale for government support.”

“The green jobs debate has always been vexed – often because it has been argued between vested interests and because analysis is too short-term or provides an incomplete picture,” said Dr Rob Gross, from Imperial College London, one of the co-authors of the report. “Our report helps explain the issues and shows that, in principle, investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency can create jobs. However, the issues are complex and simplistic conclusions are best avoided.

“Ultimately, it is more helpful to think about jobs in terms of long-term goals and the major challenges we all face, like tackling climate change. This is why it’s important that we think through these issues and the kind of future we want.”

Endless Debate

No doubt a report such as this will be turned on its head to prove Dr. Gross’ point — that of vested interests. A recent opinion piece in The Australian by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s business adviser, Maurice Newman, brought to light just how easily someone with the will can bastardise research — good or bad. I’m not going to give the piece credit enough by linking to it, but thankfully Graham Readfearn played “whack-a-Maurice” with the piece in an article he wrote for The Guardian.

That employment is an important part of the debate is not in question, but its importance is one worth discussing. Stories such as an entire graduating class of wind technicians being offered jobs on the same day (by the same company) are still evident of an industry in growth, and in high demand. And understanding the impact a project will have on a local population’s employment figures is inherently beneficial, as it expands the scope of the project’s importance beyond its inherent energy generating capabilities.

Over the years though, the conclusions made by the UKERC team will become more and more important, as the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries mature, secure their futures, and continue to impact the economies of countries the world over. It is then that the real task will begin for the industry to create the right context for conversation.

The full UKERC report can be found here.

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