Despite the challenges and difficulties of the past year, worldwide, the number of people either directly or indirectly employed in the renewable energy sector reached 12.7 million last year. This means an increase of 700,000 new jobs in one year, compared with 2020 data. The most renewable-related jobs in 2021 were in the solar photovoltaic industry accounting for 4.3 million jobs, followed by biofuel and hydropower giving occupation to 2.4 million each and then wind power with 1.3 million.
The latest report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows that in terms of global employment in renewables, the European Union currently ranks second, tied with Brazil with 10 per cent each. They are both behind Asia, owning approximately two-thirds of the jobs in renewables but preceding the United States and India, at 7 per cent each.
Poland: CEE solar champion
In terms of PV-related jobs, 6.8 per cent are located in Europe, with two European countries among the global top ten PV employers, Germany and, within the Central and Eastern European region, Poland. Europe however lags behind Asia which, with a strong presence in manufacturing and installations, detains 79 per cent of the PV jobs. In fact, the EU relies heavily on PV module import, as 84 per cent of the solar modules installed between 2017 and 2021 is imported.
Indeed, Chinese industrial and innovation policies focused on expanding solar panel production and markets have helped solar PV become the most affordable electricity generation technology in many parts of the world. However, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), this has also led to imbalances in solar PV supply chains. Meeting international energy and climate goals requires the global deployment of solar PV to grow on an unprecedented scale. Within the EU, most of the jobs concerns the deployment of solar panels, followed by manufacturing, operations, maintenance, decommissioning and recycling.
In Europe, Poland has a leading role in photovoltaic employment with a 24 per cent of share in the region which means 113,000 jobs. A result that might surprise at a first glance, as the country is only the fourth largest market in the EU after Germany, Spain and the Netherlands and it is not the largest manufacturer either. However, residential solar panels are quite popular in Poland, creating more jobs than larger installations. Besides, it has lower labour costs than Western European countries which adds to its attractiveness in hosting PVs.
An underestimated challenge
Further developments in this area are expected all over the EU in the coming years, as solar power has been identified as the most competitive source of electricity in many parts of Europe and received a key role in the EU’s energy transition strategy.
Indeed, the goal set by the REPowerEU plan is to reach 750 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity installed by 2030, up from 167 GW at the end of 2021. This according to the estimations would create one million new jobs (including direct and indirect opportunities) in the industry at the European level, which would more than double the number of jobs.
However, despite the demand for solar power systems being much higher than in the past years, the Brussels-based association SolarPower Europe brings attention to an underestimated and yet major bottleneck: a lack of installers. Even where administrative barriers are resolved and solar panels are readily available, Europeans report delays of up to a year to install solar rooftop systems and even longer if combined with battery storage or heat pumps. Thus the association is calling on EU countries to step up efforts to assess their national skills needs and ensure that training programmes are accessible to future solar workers.
Hungary and its role in exporting biofuels
Although it fell due to the coronavirus pandemic and its knock-on effects on transport in 2020-2021, biofuels returned to pre-crisis levels. In terms of employment, the EU ranks lower than its competitors with only 6.4 per cent of the share. It is preceded by Latin America and Asia with an approximative 30-40 per cent share of people employed in this sector.
Most biofuel jobs in the EU are located in France, followed by three CEE countries, Romania, Poland and Hungary. Hungary plays a particularly important role in terms of the export of biofuels as it contributed with a share of 4.4 per cent to global exports in 2020. Also domestically, Hungary has set a 2030 Renewable Energy Share in Transport target of 14 per cent, which will be achieved by increasing the share of crop-based biofuels to 7 per cent and advanced biofuels to 3.5 per cent.
Last year in March, Hungarian multinational oil and gas company MOL Group announced to move up the value chain by becoming a biofuel producer, through the implementation of an investment in its Danube Refinery in Százhalombatta. Through a new process, the bio-feedstock will be processed together with the fossil materials already during production to produce more sustainable diesel with the same quality, reducing CO2 emissions by 200,000 tons per year. The benefits will be twofold, as the company will produce more sustainable fuel, while also contributing to the circular economy by recycling waste.
Hydropower projects raise too many issues
Global hydropower capacity increased by 25 GW in 2021, with European countries adding around 1.5 GW (by comparison, China’s contribution was 21 GW.) Nearly 2.36 million people were directly employed in the sector in 2021. Manufacturing accounts for two-thirds of global jobs, construction and installation for 30 per cent while the remaining about 6 per cent of global jobs are in operations and maintenance.
Hydropower has traditionally played an important role in the CEE region, especially in South-Eastern Europe, with Albania, for example, having built around 600 megawatts (MW) of large power plants and hundreds of megawatts of smaller plants since 2010.
In 2020, after the Moglicë hydropower plant in Albania, operated by Europe’s largest generator of renewable energy Statkraft, started commercial operations, the hydropower production in the Devoll valley reached approximately 13 per cent of Albania’s total electricity generation.
There have also been hydropower projects in Croatia and Montenegro. However, climate change is putting this role into question, mainly because of vulnerability to drought and the need to maintain biodiversity. This has been coupled with legal problems and a lack of funding, with several large hydropower projects halted in recent years based on a report of CEE Bankwatch, EuroNatur, Riverwatch and WWF Adria.
Opportunities in the Romanian wind power sector
Finally, wind power provided jobs for 1.4 million people worldwide in 2021 with an increase of 0.15 million since last year. Europe’s share of wind energy jobs is 25 per cent. Our continent is a leader in the development of offshore facilities and technology, but technology is also developing rapidly in other countries, such as China. Two European countries stand out in terms of production and exports, Denmark and Germany.
According to Wind Europe, the largest wind power-building countries are found in Western and Northern Europe, although Turkey is also emerging among them. Wind energy projects are reportedly sourcing up to 72 per cent of their wind turbines from domestic sources and IRENA estimates that employment in the wind energy sector could be as high as 25,000 jobs.
In addition, regarding other CEE countries, Romania is now planning to expand its wind power capacity, by building renewable energy plants using 595 million euros of EU support under the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. Under the plan, Romania is obliged to ensure that 950 MW of wind and solar power are operational by mid-2024 and this may lead to new employment in renewables, including job opportunities in wind power.