The Renewable Energy Industry Added Over a Million Jobs Last Year

The clean energy industry grew by 18 percent in a single year. Worldwide, the sector is booming.

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May 19 2015, 6:00pm

Image: University of Salford, Flickr

A new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) brings some more good news from the front lines of the clean power boom: At the end of 2014, there were 7.7 million jobs in the alternative energy industry, up from 6.5 million in 2013. That's over a million new jobs in solar, wind, biofuels, and smaller renewable industries (hydro power wasn't counted).

Which marks an 18 percent gain, worldwide, in a single year. That's some seriously solid growth, and it's spread across the sector. Solar remains the biggest player, employing 2.5 million workers globally.

"Plummeting prices for renewable energy technologies are triggering capacity additions and driving job growth," lead author Rabia Ferroukhi, IRENA Deputy Director of Knowledge, Policy and Finance, wrote me in an email. "Solar PV, wind and biofuels have led the deployment. Jobs in solar PV, for instance, increased by 75 percent in the United States and more than doubled in Japan."

Wind power hit a new milestone, too.

"Following a remarkable year of growth in China, strong markets in Brazil and the EU, and a revival in the US, jobs in wind crossed the one million mark for the first time," Ferroukhi said. Biofuels are growing too, and remain a major player in places like Brazil, where sugarcane ethanol is big business. But most of the gains come in Asia, which is now home to most of the world's renewable energy industry jobs. China alone nearly accounts for half of the global total.

IRENA

"China is the world's largest renewable energy employer with 3.4 million jobs," the report notes. "China leads global employment in solar PV, wind, solar heating and cooling, small and large hydropower, biomass and biogas."

Along with China's ongoing renewable energy blitz, there's serious growth in India—new Prime Minister Narendra Modi made deploying clean energy a cornerstone of his domestic agenda—as well as strong showings in emergent markets like Bangladesh, where programs to install solar panels on rural, previously unelectrified homes have seen remarkable success.

Growth was slower but still solid in the United States, where under 50,000 jobs were added to the sector last year. The expiration of tax incentives slowed the industry's momentum, though bipartisan support for clean energy programs and the excitement surrounding projects like Tesla's gigafactory could revive it.

And that's an important element here: economic growth, of course, translates into political support. This report paints a picture of an increasingly powerful—if still fledgling—industry, which legislators and advocates will work to protect if it's landing their districts jobs. "Job creation" is the mantra du jour these days, after all. It's the salve that makes fighting climate change seem friendly even to Republicans. Look no further than Texas and Kansas, deeply red states that nonetheless embrace wind turbines.

All told, the report paints an interesting portrait of renewable power in 2015: China investing mightily to corner the market, developing nations embracing solar as the most cost-effective option, and the US maintaining growth despite flagging subsidies.

The sector may be small yet—it's still less than 1 percent of global employment—but the scope and speed of the current boom signals that normalization, securitization, and, maybe, just maybe, a full-on transition from fossil fuels may be on the horizon.