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Renewable energy market employs 11 million in 2018

As the global energy transformation continues to gain momentum, renewable energy employment dimension ensures socio-economic sustainability and provides yet another reason for countries to commit to renewables.

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Beyond pursuing climate goals, many governments have prioritised renewables as a driver of low-carbon economic growth. Diversification of the supply chain has broadened the sector’s geographic footprint beyond a few leading markets, as more countries link sustainable technology choices to broader socio-economic benefits.

Increasingly, countries envisage a domestic renewable energy industry taking the place of unsustainable fossil-based industries.

The sector now employs at least 11 million people worldwide, with more countries manufacturing, trading and installing renewable energy technologies every year according to the latest analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This compares with 10.3 million in 2017.

As the global energy transformation continues to gain momentum, this employment dimension ensures socio-economic sustainability and provides yet another reason for countries to commit to renewables.

As more and more countries manufacture, trade and install renewable energy technologies, the latest Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review finds that renewables jobs grew to their highest level despite slower growth in key renewable energy markets including China.

The diversification of the renewable energy supply chain is changing the sector’s geographic footprint. Until now, renewable energy industries have remained relatively concentrated in a handful of major markets, such as China, the United States and the European Union. Increasingly, however, East and Southeast Asian countries have emerged alongside China as key exporters of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Countries including Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam were responsible for a greater share of growth in renewables jobs last year, which allowed Asia to maintain a 60 per cent share of renewable energy jobs worldwide.

“Beyond climate goals, governments are prioritising renewables as a driver of low-carbon economic growth in recognition of the numerous employment opportunities created by the transition to renewables,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA.

“Renewables deliver on all main pillars of sustainable development – environmental, economic and social. As the global energy transformation gains momentum, this employment dimension reinforces the social aspect of sustainable development and provides yet another reason for countries to commit to renewables.”

Solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind remain the most dynamic of all renewable energy industries. Accounting for one-third of the total renewable energy workflow, solar PV retains the top spot in 2018, ahead of liquid biofuels, hydropower, and wind power. Geographically, Asia hosts over three million PV jobs, nearly nine-tenths of the global total.

Most of the wind industry’s activity still occurs on land and is responsible for the bulk of the sector’s 1.2 million jobs. China alone accounts for 44 per cent of global wind employment, followed by Germany and the United States. Offshore wind could be an especially attractive option for leveraging domestic capacity and exploiting synergies with the oil and gas industry.

The solar PV industry retains the top spot, with a third of the total renewable energy workforce. In 2018, PV employment expanded in India, Southeast Asia and Brazil, while China, the United States, Japan and the European Union lost jobs.

Globally, the solar PV industry installed 94 gigawatts (GW) of capacity during 2018, the same amount as in 2017. China, India, the United States and Japan were the most important installation markets, followed by Australia, Germany, the Republic of Korea, and Turkey.

A recent listing reveals that 50 leading solar PV panel manufacturers maintain factories in 23 countries. China remains dominant, accounting in 2018 for 69% and 64% of global cell and module capacities, respectively.

All Asian countries as a group (excluding India) held shares of 92% and 85%, respectively. Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Chinese Taipei are important producers. Driven by Chinese and other foreign investment, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam are playing significant roles as producers and exporters. Viet Nam hosts facilities owned by 11 different manufacturers; Malaysia, 9; and Thailand.

IRENA estimates that global solar PV employment stood at 3.6 million jobs in 2018. Of the leading ten countries shown in Figure 6, eight are Asian (for the purposes of this report, Turkey is counted as part of Asia).

Overall, Asia is home to almost 3 million solar PV jobs (85% of the global total), followed by North America’s 6.4% share, Africa’s 3.9% and Europe’s 3.2%. This year’s global total is not directly comparable to the figure reported in last year’s edition.

It includes an off-grid jobs estimate of 372 000 jobs for South Asia and parts of Africa. Earlier editions did not have fully comparable estimates for these regions.

China, the leading producer of PV equipment and the world’s largest installation market, accounted for about two-thirds of PV employment worldwide, or some 2.2 million jobs. A strong pace of capacity additions in India (9.2 GW in 2018) led IRENA to raise its on-grid solar employment estimate from 92 400 jobs to 115 000 jobs, a number that could double if off-grid deployments were included.

Solar PV employment in the European Union declined by about 5% to 90 800 jobs in 2017, reflecting a drop of more than 10% in installations. Policy uncertainties caused US employment to fall for a second year in 2018, to an estimated 225 000 jobs.

Japan’s solar PV industry continues to face difficulties, including shortages of available land for deployment. Although the country’s installation market is still one of the world’s largest, additions in 2018 were below those of 2017. IRENA estimates that employment fell to 250 000 jobs in 2018.

Together, onshore and offshore wind employ 1.16 million people worldwide, up 1% from 2017. Most wind jobs are found in a small number of countries, although the concentration is less than in the solar PV sector.

China accounts for 44% of the global total; the top five countries represent 75%. The regional picture is also more balanced than in the solar PV industry. Asia’s 620 000 wind jobs make up about half the total, while Europe accounts for 28% and North America for 10%.

Of the top 10 countries shown in Figure 8, five are European, three are Asian, and one each is from North and South America. China remained the leader in new installations during 2018, adding 20 GW, of which 1.8 GW offshore.

The country’s total wind employment was estimated to hold steady at 510 000 jobs, followed by Germany (140 800 jobs) and the United States, where wind employment grew 8% to a new peak of 114 000 jobs.

Of all renewable energy technologies, hydropower continues to have the largest installed capacity. In 2018, it accounted for almost 50% of renewable energy in the world, but the share has declined as other renewables, in particular solar PV and wind, have grown faster than hydropower.

The analysis suggests that in 2018, over 2 million people were directly employed in the hydropower sector worldwide. Although the pace of new construction in key markets has slowed, the sector nonetheless experienced a growth of 3% over the previous year.

The distribution of employment across different segments of the value chain remains similar to previous years. More than 70% of the jobs are in operations and maintenance.

Construction and installation represent 23% of the total; manufacturing is characterised by lower labour intensity and contributes just 5%. Employment shares by country in 2018 provide interesting insights. India’s labour-intensive hydropower sector is the largest employer, accounting for 17% of the total, followed by China (15%) which experienced a decline in new installations.

Brazil, where hydropower provides 77% of electricity supply, accounts for 10 % of the total. Other large players are Viet Nam (6%), Pakistan (5%), the European Union and the Russian Federation (4% each), and Iran (Islamic Republic of) and the United States (3% each).

Major solar heating and cooling markets, including China and Brazil, continued their downward trend in 2018, while India and several other markets showed increased activity. IRENA’s estimates indicate that global employment in the sector declined to 801 400 jobs.

The top five countries account for 93% of all jobs. Asia is home to 711 000 jobs, 88% of the world total. Of the top 10, three countries are from Asia and three from Europe. Estimates for China suggest that employment held steady in 2018 from the previous year.

With more than 70% of global installed capacity and a strong position in export markets, the country also remains dominant in employment. In cumulative terms, the US is the second largest national market, followed by Turkey, Germany, Brazil, India and Australia.

The leading bioethanol producers all reached new output peaks in 2018. Biodiesel production also rose in many of these countries, but declined in Argentina and the European Union, and remained level in Australia, China, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Worldwide employment in biofuels is estimated at 2 million, an increase of 6% from 2017. Most of these jobs are generated in planting and harvesting of feedstock. Fuel-processing facilities tend to offer fewer jobs than does feedstock supply, but those jobs typically require higher technical skills and offer better pay.

Annual changes in biofuels employment, notably, do not always equate to net job gains or losses. Oil palm, soybean, corn, and other feedstocks are used for a range of agricultural and commercial purposes outside the energy sector, and their end-use may therefore vary from year to year without people losing jobs.

On the other hand, when people are displaced from their land by expanding biofuels plantations, agricultural livelihoods may be lost irretrievably. The regional profile of biofuels employment differs considerably from that of the solar PV sector.

Latin America accounts for half of all jobs worldwide, whereas Asia (principally labour-intensive Southeast Asian feedstock supply) accounts for 23%, North America for 16% and Europe for 10%. Figure 7 includes the top 10 countries, which together account for about 91% of global estimated employment.

Several factors shape how and where employment is generated along the renewable energy supply chain. These include governmental policies; the diversification of supply chains; trade patterns; and industry reorganisation and consolidation trends. Aside from these factors, which are discussed below, labour productivity grows in importance over time.

As renewable energy industries become more mature, gain economies of scale, navigate learning curves and turn more to automated processes, fewer people will be needed for a given task.

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