The renewable energy sector employed 9.8 million people in 2016, up 1.1% percent from 2015, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA’s) “Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review 2017”, released May 24.

“Renewable energy employment worldwide has continued to grow since IRENA’s first annual assessment in 2012, but the last two years have seen a more moderate rate of growth. The most consistent increase has come from jobs in the solar [photovoltaic (PV)] and wind categories, together more than doubling since 2012. In contrast, employment in solar heating and cooling and large hydropower has declined,” the review explains.

IRENA credits the increase in jobs to falling costs and supportive policies in several key nations. For example, it is reasonable to consider the planned expiration of the Investment Tax Credit in the U.S. a driving force for increased solar PV jobs. “During 2015, companies had initiated many projects that were to be completed before the end of 2016, when many anticipated that the federal Investment Tax Credit would expire. But the US Congress ultimately agreed to a multi-year extension in December 2015,” the report notes.

In the U.S., most of the 2016 renewable job growth was in the solar and wind industries. The U.S. solar industry employed 260,077 people, an increase of 24.5% from 2015. More specifically 241,900 people were employed in solar PV, 13,000 in solar heating/cooling, and 5,200 in concentrated solar power (CSP).

Employment in the U.S. wind industry totaled 102,500 jobs in 2016. “Growth was driven by the multi-year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC). The PTC is projected to drive employment to 147,000 jobs by 2020,” according to the report.

In contrast, IRENA reports, “In the United States, employment in coal has declined from 174,000 to 55,000 in the last 30 years.” The report goes on to note that while solar represents a little more than 1% of the nation’s total generating capacity, a stark contrast to coal’s 26%, “solar workers are already twice as numerous as those in the highly-automated coal industry.”

China Remains in First Place

Employing a whopping 3.64 million people in the renewable energy sector, China easily ranks as the world’s number one renewable energy employer. “The Chinese renewable energy job market grew by 3.4% in 2016, primarily due to strong gains in the solar PV sector. Employment declined in bioenergy, solar heating and cooling and small hydropower,” the report notes.

Solar PV alone accounted for nearly 1.96 million jobs in 2016, though manufacturing jobs in the area were essentially flat from 2015, “due to rising labour productivity and economies of scale. Jobs in the construction and installation segment doubled as new installation increased by 125%. [Operations and maintenance] jobs rose 18%.”

While wind installations in China are on the decline, employment in the sector was up slightly to 509,000.

More Increases Predicted

IRENA predicts that global renewable energy jobs will more than double by 2030. “Many job opportunities will be created along the different segments of the value chain, with increasing requirements for individuals with diverse skill-sets and talents,” the report says.

“Renewables are directly supporting broader socio-economic objectives, with employment creation increasingly recognised as a central component of the global energy transition,” IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin, said in an IRENA press release. “As the scales continue to tip in favour of renewables, we expect that the number of people working in the renewables sector could reach 24 million by 2030, more than offsetting fossil-fuel job losses and becoming a major economic driver around the world.”

Abby L. Harvey is a POWER reporter.