New technologies and business models create a constant churn of labour market disruption. Robots, driverless cars and other forms of automation will mean millions fewer jobs worldwide. On the other hand, fast-growing renewable energy technologies are catalyzing huge numbers of new jobs - 10.3 million at the last count - with massive potential for more.
But two thirds of these jobs so far are in Brazil, China, the EU and the US. Precious few are in emerging economies that desperately need clean energy and well-paid jobs. This includes countries in many parts of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where enormous populations have no electricity at all.
The obstacle for the green jobs gap? A lack of appropriate skills and entrepreneurs.
Despite growing demand for home solar systems, mini-grids and other distributed renewable energy (DRE) solutions in Africa and Asia, there is a growing shortage of job-ready talent to finance, develop, install, operate and manage these systems. The skill gap is especially severe in remote, rural areas, where energy poverty, swelling youth populations and joblessness are most severe.
Sub-Saharan Africa faces the biggest challenge. This region has more than 600 million people living without electricity and only 16,000 people working in the renewable energy sector (excluding South Africa), according to the latest data from IRENA. Meanwhile, 12 to 13 million African youth enter the labour market every year, yet only three million get formal jobs. India, which has nearly 300 million people living without electricity, is pushing to build 175 gigawatts of solar and wind energy by 2022. Achieving this goal will require 300,000 renewable energy workers, a substantial increase on current numbers.
Closing this job skills gap is the focus of a new #PoweringJobs campaign launched in October 2018 by a coalition of companies, government and multilateral agencies, researchers, NGOs and trade associations. It aims to build the robust and diverse energy access workforce that will be needed to fill millions of new jobs and accelerate progress on Sustainable Development Goal 7, which calls for universal energy access by 2030.
The campaign has a simple but powerful premise: using ever more affordable distributed renewables to provide electricity to one billion people is a massive economic opportunity. It will create wide-ranging jobs and business opportunities in underserved rural areas that need clean energy and economic activity the most. Many of these rural jobs could be filled by women and youth, who suffer the most from energy poverty and broader economic disenfranchisement.
The potential is hard to miss. In India, research has found that rooftop solar systems create seven times as many jobs per megawatt as utility-scale solar projects. Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency has created 5,000 skilled and unskilled jobs in just the past year. The International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy (ENERGIA) has supported 4,000 female entrepreneurs who have provided two million people with solar panels and other sustainable energy equipment in remote areas of Africa and Asia.
“They started out as housewives, and are now seen as successful entrepreneurs”, says Sheila Oparaocha, international coordinator and programme manager at ENERGIA.
“With their new position and status, they gain respect. They also set a very different example for their daughters.”
IRENA estimates that the full off-grid renewable value chain could create at least 4.5 million jobs by 2030, including entrepreneurs, technicians, installers and distributors. But those numbers may be very low. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that India alone could add three million new jobs if the renewable energy sector continues on its current growth trajectory.
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A key campaign priority is to conduct the first comprehensive survey on energy access jobs and their broad economic impacts. The first findings will be shared in early 2019. Ramping up workforce and entrepreneurship initiatives that can propel energy access efforts forward, especially for women and youth, is another key priority. Until now, these efforts have been treated marginally by national and international development policies, as well as by donors.
But we’re seeing encouraging signs from countries such as India and Jordan, which have made distributed renewable energy - and related job training - key national priorities. India’s Skill Council for Green Jobs, launched as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massive national solar push, including in rural areas, has already created 450 training centres in seven states across the country. More than 30,000 solar PV installers have been certified.
Jordan, a much smaller country with large jobless rates for women and youth, has trained more than 200 renewable energy professionals - a third of them women - who are working on electric vehicles, distributed renewable energy and grid-scale wind and solar projects. This effort is one of the reasons why Jordan is now leading the Middle East and North Africa in renewable energy growth, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
These activities are certainly encouraging. But they are only the first step in seizing the vast economic opportunity of distributed renewable energy and the millions of good jobs it can provide in the world’s most underserved regions.