Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Recent Years Mark Record-setting Bright Spots for the Renewable Energy Industry

By David Heberling, Policy Intern

2015 and the first part of 2016 have been record-setting in ways both good and bad for the environment. Already in 2016, the first three months have broken the record temperatures from the first quarter in 2015.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, temperatures continue to be unseasonably warm. In April, Seattle and Portland both experienced record-setting months that not only smashed the seasonal average, but topped any previous average April high for either city. While this has unfortunately become something of a normal part of the news cycle in the U.S., the implications abroad are dire. As the Pacific Northwest experienced a record-breaking Spring, climate change effects were also wreaking havoc for our neighbors across the Pacific. India now faces an unprecedented heatwave with the highest temperatures the country has ever recorded.

However, not all the news from start of the year has been negative. Some very positive records are being set right alongside some of the most alarming. Building on the progress from last year, the energy sector has seen unprecedented job gains in the advance towards a renewable future. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016, renewable energy employment continues to top the numbers from previous years. As of 2015, over eight million individuals work in the renewable energy sector worldwide. This represents a 5% increase over the employment of 2014. This figure stands in stark contrast to the oil, gas, and coal industries, which saw a general decline in 2015. While the surge in renewable jobs is a multi-faceted movement, the Director-General of IRENA points towards a reduction in the price of tech and the adoption of pro-renewable tax credit policies by leading nations as important contributing factors. The two main sectors of growth within the renewable energy industry are the addition of new jobs and the increase in renewable energy generation. These two are closely related. As more jobs are added, more installations occur, and more energy is generated. Alternatively, as renewable development becomes lucrative and more projects are proposed, more jobs are generated to build the new projects. Thus, despite their clear relation, the growth in renewable jobs and new renewable generation are distinct and warrant separate examination

In the U.S., employment in renewables rose even faster than the global statistics. While the world overall saw a 5% increase in renewable employment, the U.S. increased by 6% over the previous year, bringing the total for U.S. renewable jobs to 769,000. Solar has continued to shine as the leader in domestic renewable employment, rising by 22% to a total of 209,000 jobs. The growth in solar industry employment outstrips overall U.S. employment growth by 12:1. Most incredibly, this means that employment in solar has surpassed oil or coal as the top energy employer for the first time (pictured above). Wind employment has also continued to grow at a rapid pace, increasing 21% over the previous year, for a total of 88,000 jobs.

Related to the boom in renewable employment, renewable generation has increased its share of total generation. Renewable generation in the first quarter of 2016 is up over 14% from the first quarter of 2015. This growth also represents a 3% increase in the portion of total U.S. energy generation made up by renewables.  Now, renewable energy accounts for 17% of the total energy produced in Q1 of 2016, versus 14% in Q1 of 2015.

In the face of such rapid economic growth and success, even big names in conventional fossil fuel generation have begun to read the writing on the wall. The United Arab Emirates, a major oil producing country, has set ambitious goals to employ 90,000 people in renewables by 2030. This growth will be driven by the two large solar photovoltaics manufacturing projects already in place, and the goal to have rooftop solar for every building in Dubai by 2030. Shell Oil has also apparently realized which way the winds are blowing, recently deciding to develop a renewable energy division to capitalize on the emerging markets.

A continued dedication to the growth of the renewable energy sector is needed if we expect the coming years to be as positive as 2015. The historic Paris Agreement helps to build investor confidence that the policies in place fostering the renewable energy boom are long-term commitments. The favorable tax policies and credits that renewable projects receive help insulate the industry from the tumultuous nature of conventional fuel source markets. Therefore, as a nation, we should look forward to the great green horizon and the shift of our energy sector towards a more sustainable future.

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