Bright future for solar power jobs market

Paul Boughton

With Europe still leading the way in Solar PV Energy production, the US, China and Japan are hot on their heels.

The US recorded record-breaking growth in 2013 Q3 and in plans announced this month (March 2014), Xcel Energy will seek proposals to add 10 times more solar to its grid by 2017, and to double that amount of solar energy by 2020 (“State sees a boom ahead for solar industry.

In 2012 solar power produced just 0.5 per cent of global electricity. It’s not huge compared to coal (42 per cent), natural gas (21 per cent), hydro (15 per cent) and nuclear (12 per cent), however this is a start-up industry and as this graph shows, the initial growth looks pretty healthy for a start-up.

It is worth mentioning that although China may be in 5th place for Solar PV production, they are firmly leading the way in Solar thermal water heating.  By the end of 2012 all the solar PV capacity in the world totalled about 100GW. Meanwhile in China solar water heating capacity alone had reached roughly 178GW.

Solar technologies have moved on significantly in recent years, installation costs have been estimated to have fallen by around 80 per cent in the past 5 years, with a solar module costing  approximately 1 per cent of what it did 35 years ago, this, coupled with increasing oil, gas and coal prices and rising utility rates for electricity, the solar industry has piqued the interest of the investment markets, as well as bolstering the renewable energy jobs market.

Strong performance from renewables stocks has helped HSBC’s Climate Change Index (CCI) outperform wider markets in 2014, with its solar index up 23 per cent so far this year.  

The CCI, which now tracks 363 companies, has returned 4.6 per cent from the start of 2014 and indicates that solar is leading the way: “HSBC analysts believe that in a number of US states and European markets solar has now reached grid parity, making it increasingly attractive to a growing pool of investors, because it does not need subsidies to be financially viable.”

Impacts of these developments on the renewable energy jobs market have varied by country and technology, but globally the number of people working in renewable industries has continued to rise.

An estimated 5.7 million people worldwide1 work directly or indirectly in the sector.

The Solar PV jobs market has been pretty volatile, with dramatic reductions in manufacturing costs coupled with massive overcapacities, as well as national fluctuations of Feed in Tariff (FiT) rates.  However, the solar energy jobs market is still strong and globally Solar PV is currently employing an estimated 1.3 million as indicated in this table taken from the from the Renewables 2013 Global Status Report.

The US solar industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S.  Not only did the solar industry exceed its growth expectations, but the pace of hiring in 2013 was more than 50 per cent higher than in 2012.

This fourth annual Census confirms that the industry continues to play an important role in America’s overall economic recovery by providing good-paying, high-skilled jobs opportunities to more than 142,000 workers at 18,000 locations in all 50 states. It’s a 20% growth rate over the last year, more than ten times the overall national employment growth rate during the same period.

So what are the predictions for future growth?

Although the jobs market in Spain has generally been erratic, analysts point out that the country has seen its first unsubsidised 1MW solar project connected to the grid, implemented by privately held company Grupo Enerpro, which has plans to develop a further 10 schemes this year alone.

China is expected to retain its title as the world’s fastest growing solar energy market this year, followed by Japan – both benefiting from particularly supportive government policy. China is targeting 14GW of solar PV installations over the course of the year, with a new FiT scheme making the market more attractive to investors.

The analysts predict that the 11 per cent reduction in Japan’s FiT rate will not deter investors, and the country will see 7.5GW of solar PV projects built in 2014.

Attention will increasingly turn to emerging solar markets in Latin America, with Brazil agreeing 122.8MW of installations to be delivered by July 2015, and initiatives in Chile and Peru to be carried out in coming years.

The UK Renewable Energy market has also reported strong growth in 2013 Q3.  Bioenergy had the largest share of the renewable energy generation at 45 per cent, with 25 per cent coming from onshore wind, 18 per cent from offshore wind, 7.3 per cent from hydro and 5.6 per cent from solar PV.

UK Solar PV capacity increased by 119MW during 2013 Q3, and by the end of September was at 2.5GW, which is 13 per cent of all renewable capacity.

Installed solar PV capacity has increased 25 fold since the end of 2010 in the UK and the new Solar PV Energy Roadmap set out by DECC, will work with businesses and industry to build on this unprecedented growth. DECC published the ‘UK Solar PV Strategy Part 1: Roadmap to a Brighter Future’ in October 2013, as a precursor to publishing their eagerly awaited ‘Solar PV Strategy’ in spring 2014 which will assist the development of policy and the growth of the solar energy sector.

Ray Noble, Co-chair of the Government’s Solar Strategy Group, has a vision that the UK could eventually develop its own solar-module manufacturing base. “I think what’s going to happen is exactly what happened with Honda, Toyota and Nissan in the UK automotive industry. They built assembly plants which have become manufacturing plants and they’ve ended up exporting back to Japan. Transferring modules around the world is a waste of time because you’ve got a container full of fresh air. Within two to three years I can see assembly being done in Europe and the UK. It’s a super-fast-moving industry. The problem is trying to keep up with it.”

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