Renewable Energy companies seen as barriers to a successful public energy transition

Recent issues of New Labor Forum include articles promoting the concept of energy democracy, and bringing an international perspective.  In “Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors” (New Labor Forum, August),  author Sean Sweeney argues that renewable energy companies “are party to a “race to the bottom” capitalist dynamic that exploits workers – citing the example of alleged forced Uyghur labour in China-based solar companies, and the offshoring of manufacturing for the Scottish wind industry. He also argues that “large wind and solar interests’ “me first” behavior is propping up a policy architecture that is sucking in large amounts of public money to make their private operations profitable. They are sustaining a model of energy transition that has already shown itself to be incapable of meeting climate targets. In so doing, these companies have not just gone over to the political dark side, they helped design it.”   

The theme of the Spring New Labor Forum was  A Public Energy Response to the Climate Emergency , and includes these three articles: “Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility”; “Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action”; and Mexico’s Wall of Resistance:  Why AMLO’s Fight for Energy Sovereignty Needs Our Support .

The author of Sustaining the Unsustainable is Sean Sweeney, who is Director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York, and is also the coordinator of  Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).  In August, TUED convened a Global Forum, “COP26: What Do Unions Want?”   – with participation  from 69 unions, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA), the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and Public Services International (PSI). Presentations are  summarized in TUED Bulletin 111, (Aug. 18), and are available on YouTube here .  

Job growth in clean energy will more than offset fossil fuel losses

Clean Energy Canada released a new report on June 17,  projecting that Canada’s clean energy sector will grow by almost 50% (over 200,000 jobs) by 2030, to reach 639,200 jobs. The report states that this will far exceed the 125,800 jobs expected to be lost in fossil fuels.  Surprisingly, the province with the greatest increase in clean energy jobs will be Alberta – forecast  to increase by 164% by 2030.  As the introduction concludes: “Oil and gas may have dominated Canada’s energy past, but it’s Canada’s clean energy sector that will define its new reality.”

The New Reality report is the latest in the “Tracking the Energy Transition” series, updating the 2019 report.  It is based on modelling by Navius Research – presented in a technical report here. Employment and GDP numbers are considered under two policy scenarios: the Pan-Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change (the Liberal government’s previous policy) , and the Healthy Environment, Healthy Economy policy, unveiled in December 2020.  The definition of “clean energy jobs” is broad, and forecasting breaks down into industry sectors – for example, stating that  jobs in electric vehicle technology are on track to grow 39% per year, with 184,000 people set to be employed in the industry in 2030—a 26-fold increase over 2020. The report also highlights specific examples of the pioneering clean energy companies in Canada.

Clean energy jobs as a transition destination

Released on June 3, Responding to Automation: Building a Cleaner Future  is a new analysis by the Conference Board of Canada, in partnership with the Future Skills Centre. It investigates the potential for clean energy jobs as a career transition destination for workers at high risk of losing their jobs because of automation. The clean energy occupations were identified from three areas: clean energy production, energy efficiency , and environmental management and the “rapid growth” jobs identified range from wind turbine technicians and power-line installers to industrial engineers, sheet metal workers, and  geospatial information scientists. Based on interviews with clean economy experts, as well as the interview responses from over five hundred workers across Canada, the analysis identifies  the structural barriers holding employers and workers back from transition:  Lack of consistent financial support for workers to reskill • Employer hesitancy to hire inexperienced workers • Current demand for relevant occupations which makes change less attractive • Lack of awareness around potential transition opportunities • Personal relocation barriers, such as high living costs in new cities, and family commitments. None of the recommended actions to overcome the barriers include a role for unions, with the burden for action falling largely on the individual employee. Only summary information is presented as a web document, but this research is part of a larger focus on automation, so it can be hoped that a fuller report will be published – if so, the partner group, Future Skills, maintains a Research website where it will likely be available.  

Other news about renewable energy jobs:

“Renewable Energy Boom Unleashes a War Over Talent for Green Jobs” appeared in Bloomberg Green News (June 8), describing shortages of skilled workers in renewable energy, mainly in the U.S.. It also summarizes a U.K. report which forecasts a large need for workers in the U.K. offshore industry, which is expected to be met by people transferring from the oil and gas sector.  

A report by the Global Wind Energy Council forecasts a growth of 3.3 million wind jobs worldwide by 2025, and suggests that offshore wind energy jobs could offer a natural transition for workers dislocated from offshore oil and gas and marine engineering workers. According to the analysis, in 2020, there were approximately 550,000 wind energy workers in China, 260,00 in Brazil, 115,000 in the US and 63,000 in India.  A related report, The Global Wind Workforce Outlook 2021-2025 forecasts a large training gap: the global wind industry will need to train over 480,000 people in the next five years to construct, install, operate and maintain the world’s growing onshore and offshore wind fleet. That report is available for download here (registration required), and is summarized in this press release.

And forthcoming:   Clean Energy Canada will release its research on the clean energy labour market in Canada on June 17.  Their last jobs report, The Fast Lane: Tracking the Energy Revolution, was released in 2019.

IEA calls for a future without fossil fuel investment

Net Zero in 2050: A roadmap for the global energy system was released by the International Energy Agency on May 18, and has been described as a “bombshell”, and a “landmark”.  Why? The normally conservative IEA describes the global energy future bluntly and urgently, calling for    “…. from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. By 2035, there are no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars, and by 2040, the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions.”

This special report claims to be “ the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth.”  It sets out 400 indicators for “an economically productive pathway to 2050”, where energy production will be dominated by renewables instead of fossil fuels. The report also flags and discusses bioenergy, carbon capture, and behavioural changes as “key uncertainties” for the future.

Highlights from the discussion of employment in Chapter 4:  

  • In 2021, approx. roughly  40 million  people work  directly  in  the  oil,  gas,  coal,  renewables,  bioenergy  and  energy  network industries . 
  • By 2030 in the Net Zero scenario, 30 million more people will be working in clean energy, efficiency  and  low‐emissions  technologies. 
  • By 2030, employment  in  oil, gas and  coal fuel supply and power  plants will decline  by  around 5 million jobs.  
  • Nearly two‐thirds of workers in the emerging clean energy sectors will be highly skilled by 2030, and the majority will require substantial training. 
  • The  new  jobs  created  in  the  net zero economy  will  have  more  geographic  flexibility.   Around 40% are jobs located close to where the work is  being  done,  e.g.  building  efficiency  improvements  or  wind  turbine  installation,  and  the  remaining  are  jobs  tied  to  manufacturing  sites. 

Summaries and reaction to the IEA report:

Planet’s pathway to net-zero means no new oil and gas spending, IEA says” in the Globe and Mail  

Nations Must Drop Fossil Fuels, Fast, World Energy Body Warns” in the New York Times

No new investment in fossil fuels demands top energy economist” in The Guardian  

IEA: Tripling the Speed of Efficiency Progress a Must for a Net-Zero Carbon World from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) outlines the report’s findings regarding energy efficiency

Reaction by Oil Change International describes the importance of the adjustment to the IEA modelling – it  follows years of campaigning by climate advocates through the FixTheWEO campaign, calling for the IEA to align its annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) report with the 1.5 degree C Paris Agreement goals.

Covid-19 causes decline in solar, clean energy jobs in the U.S.

The 11th annual National Solar Jobs Census was released by the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association on May 6, reporting that 231,474 people worked across all sectors of the  industry in 2020 – a 6.7% decrease from 2019.  The decrease in jobs is attributed to the impacts of Covid-19, as well as an increase in labour productivity – up 19% in the residential sector, 2% in the non-residential sector and 32% in the utility-scale sector.  Thus, despite employing fewer workers, the solar industry installed record levels of solar capacity in 2020, with 73% of installations in “ Utility-scale installations”.   

According to the 2020 Solar Jobs Census, 10.3% of solar workers in the U.S. are unionized, above the national average and compared to 12.7% of all construction trades. The report offers details about demographic, geographic, and labour market data – for example, showing an improvement in diversity in the workforce. Since 2015, it reports a 39% increase for women, 92% increase for Hispanic or Latino workers, 18% increase for Asian American and Pacific Islander workers, and a 73% increase for Black or African American workers.   Wages for benchmark solar occupations are provided, showing levels similar to, and often higher than, wages for similar occupations in other industries.  

The 2020 Solar Jobs Census defines a solar worker as anyone who spends more than 50% of their working time in solar-related activities. It is a joint publication of the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Solar Foundation, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and BW Research Partnership. It uses publicly available data from the 2021 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER), produced by BW Research Partnership, the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO).  Solar is included in their reports, which cover the  broader energy industry (The U.S. 2020 Energy & Employment Report  and the supplementary report, Wages Benefits and Change) .

The reported decrease in solar jobs is also consistent with the message in Clean Jobs America 2021 , published  by E2 Consultants in April. That report found a decrease in total clean energy jobs from 3.36 million in 2019 to 3 million at the end of 2020, although despite the decline, the report states: “clean energy remains the biggest job creator across America’s energy sector, employing nearly three times as many workers as work in fossil fuel extraction and generation.”   The report includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electric vehicle manufacturing in their coverage.