Renewable Energy Creating Skilled Jobs In Africa & Asia

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I was listening to Bill McKibben speak on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio show this week. He told a story about being in Africa recently, where he was constantly supplied with cold beverages by his hosts. It took him about 30 minutes to realize why.

Image via Power for All

The village he was in had recently installed a small solar array with a minimal amount of battery storage. Nobody in the village had ever had access to cold beverages before and they were justifiably proud of their ability to offer McKibben chilled refreshments.

We in the so-called western world take things like refrigerators for granted. As I write this, it is 97º F outside my window and the humidity is hovering around 95%, but I am comfortable in my air conditioned study thanks to a marvelous invention called air conditioning, powered by my local utility grid.

70% of people in Africa have no access to a utility grid and never have. Their day begins and ends when the sun rises and sets. Their children cannot study at night unless they use smoky kerosene lanterns that spew toxic pollutants into the air. They cook over wood fires.

But things are changing. Africa may skip right over the conventional utility grid and go directly to distributed renewables thanks to low cost solar panels and plummeting prices for storage batteries. Soon miracles like cold water may be commonplace, but there’s more to the story than that. Thanks to renewables, employment opportunities in Africa, India, and Asia are expanding rapidly.

A new study by Power For All says rural electrification using distributed renewable will provide skilled jobs for many Africans, particularly young people and women. In a report about the survey, Forbes says,

“According to the census, decentralized renewable energy solutions — including mini-grids, solar for households and businesses, and systems to power machinery such as irrigation pumps and other appliances — already employ as many people as the traditional utility power sector in the three countries surveyed – India, Kenya and Nigeria.

For example, in Kenya, decentralized renewable energy companies directly employ 10,000 formal workers and that number is expected to grow 70% by 2022-23. By comparison, the state utility, KPLC, employs 11,000 today. In Nigeria, direct employment by the sector is expected to boom more than 10-fold by 2022-23 to 52,000 jobs.”

That’s wonderful news, but the even better news is that for every direct job created in the renewable energy industry, 4 to 5 more are created in the broader economy. In other words, Forbes says, “access to electricity is generating broader economic activity in rural communities. In India, for example, the census found 95,000 direct, formal jobs, but 470,000 productive use jobs.”

“This is a win-win. Access to electricity for rural communities in these countries means access to good work, and decentralized renewables are a major reason why,” says Rebekah Shirley, Power for All’s chief research officer and co-author of the census report. “Governments and financial institutions should increase support for scaling these solutions and for training the technical, management, sales and other talent needed to wipe out energy poverty and improve the lives of an entire generation.”

On its website, Power For All clearly states the goals of its PoweringJobs initiative. “PoweringJobs is a global campaign to ensure that the needed skills and jobs in clean, distributed energy are created to achieve universal electricity access for 1 billion people, and to employ the energy workforce of the future, especially women and youth. The campaign will create powerful evidence and stories to elevate and legitimize skills and training, and ensure building the new energy workforce is at the center of international and national development policy.”

James Ellsmoor, the author of the Forbes story, says “Rural populations in Africa and Asia have waited in vain for decades for centralized grid solutions to arrive, stifling any real chance of economic empowerment or agricultural productivity gains. According to the most recent data, renewable energy employs 11 million people globally, yet only 2% of those jobs are in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa). In other words, one of the regions most ripe for a renewables boom has the fewest workers.”

The Power For All census is proof positive that Africa, India, and Asia could benefit greatly by skipping the traditional electrical grid phase and going straight to distributed renewables. Recently, the US ambassador to Kenya — a confirmed fossil fuels stooge — made a complete ass of himself on the world stage by advocating for a new coal fired generating station to supply a conventional energy grid that doesn’t exist.

With the multiplier effect that renewable energy jobs have on the broader economy, the sooner renewables come to under-served communities, the faster their economies will grow.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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