Jobs in Renewable Energy Expanding

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Driven by the gathering sense of a climate crisis, the notion of "green jobs"-especially in the renewable energy sector-is now receiving unprecedented attention. Currently about 2.3 million people worldwide work either directly in renewables or indirectly in supplier indus­tries.1 Given incomplete data, this is in all like­lihood a conservative figure. The wind power industry employs some 300,000 people, the solar photovoltaics (PV) sector accounts for an estimated 170,000 jobs, and the solar thermal industry, at least 624,000.2 More than 1 million jobs are found in the biomass and biofuels sector.3 Small-scale hydropower and geothermal energy are far smaller employers. (See Figure 1.)

Renewables tend to be a more labor-intensive energy source than the still-dominant fossil fuels, which rely heavily on expensive pieces of pro­duction equipment. A transition toward renewables thus promises job gains. Even in the absence of such a transition, growing automa­tion and corporate consolidation are already translating into steadily fewer jobs in the oil, natural gas, and coal industries-sometimes even in the face of expanding production. Many hundreds of thousands of coal mining jobs have been shed in China, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and South Africa in the last decade or two.4 In the United States, coal output rose by almost one third during the past two decades, yet employment has been cut in half.5

A handful of countries have emerged as leaders in renewables development, thanks to strong government support. A study commissioned by the German government found that in 2006 the country had some 259,000 direct and indirect jobs in the renewables sector.6 The number is expected to reach 400,000-500,000 by 2020 and then 710,000 by 2030.7

Spain also has seen its renewables industry expand rapidly in recent years. The industry now employs some 89,000 people directly (mostly in wind power and PV) and another 99,000 indirectly.8 Denmark has long been a leader in wind development. But with policy support there less steady in recent years, the number of domestic wind jobs has stagnated at about 21,000.9

In the United States, federal policies have been weak and inconsistent over the years, leaving leadership to individual state governments. Still, a study for the American Solar Energy Society found that the U.S. renewables sector employed close to 200,000 people directly in 2006 and another 246,000 indirectly.10

India's Suzlon is one of the world's leading wind turbine manufacturers, further strengthening its position through its 2007 takeover of Germany's REpower.11 Manufacturing of wind turbine components, production of spare parts, and turbine maintenance by Suzlon and other companies are helping to generate much-needed income and employment in India.12 Suzlon currently employs more than 13,000 people directly-about 10,000 in India, and the remain­der in China, Belgium, and the United States.13

China is rapidly catching up in solar PVs and wind turbine manufacturing and is already the dominant force in solar hot water and small hydropower development.14 According to rough estimates, close to a million people in China currently work in the renewables sector.15 To some extent, these numbers reflect China's low labor productivity compared with Western countries. This seems especially true in the solar thermal industry, which is thought to employ some 600,000 people.16

The leaders in renewables technologies can expect considerable job gains in the near future in manufacturing solar panels and wind tur­bines for both domestic and export markets. Jobs in installing, operating, and maintaining renewable energy systems tend to be more local in nature and could thus benefit a broad range of countries.

For instance, Kenya has one of the largest and most dynamic solar markets in the developing world. There are 10 major solar PV import companies, and the country has an estimated 1,000-2,000 solar technicians.17 In Bangladesh, Grameen Shakti has installed more than 100,000 solar home systems in rural communities in a few years-one of the fastest-growing solar PV programs in the world-and is aiming for 1 million by 2015, along with the creation of some 100,000 jobs for local youth and women as solar technicians and repair and maintenance specialists.18

Four countries-Brazil, the United States, China, and Germany-are leading in biomass development. Brazil's ethanol industry is said to employ about 300,000 workers.19 Indonesia and Malaysia are leading palm oil producers; a small but growing share is being diverted there to biofuels production. Malaysia has an estimated half-million people employed in the palm oil industry (and another million people whose livelihoods are connected to it)-many of them Indonesian migrant workers.20 Indonesia is itself planning a major expansion, and optim­istic projections speak of 3.5 million new plantation jobs by 2010.21

Following a wave of initial enthusiasm, there are now rising doubts about the environmental benefits and economic impacts of at least some types of biofuels, however.22 And the jobs that are being created need close scrutiny as well. Biofuels processing typically requires higher skills and thus is likely to offer better pay than feedstock production and harvesting. But most jobs are found at sugarcane and palm oil plantations, where wages and working conditions are often extremely poor.

The Brazilian sugarcane industry has historically been marked by exploitation of seasonal laborers and by the takeover of smaller-scale farms by large plantation owners, often by violent means.23 The prevailing piece-rate system leaves many Brazilian plantation workers earning a pittance, and some end up in debt bondage. Living conditions are often squalid.24 In Indonesia, too, poverty is common among plantation workers, who face unsafe working conditions, frequent denial of their rights, and intimidation by employers.25

The expansion of plantations for biofuels also threatens to come at the expense of rural jobs and rural communities. Oil palm companies seeking to acquire land in Indonesia's West Kalimantan, for example, have been found to hold out false promises of jobs for local communities.26 A 2006 study of the area found that small farming systems provided livelihoods for 260 times as many people per hectare of land as oil palm plantations did.27

According to the Woods Hole Research Center, India could create some 900,000 jobs by 2025 in biomass gasification.28 Of this total, 300,000 jobs would be with manufacturers of gasifier stoves (including masons, metal fabricators, and so on) and 600,000 would be in biomass production, processing into briquettes and pellets, supply chain operations, and after-sales services.29 Another 150,000 people might find employment in advanced biomass cooking technologies.30

While biofuels are now subject to more critical reviews on a number of fronts, the future looks promising for wind and solar. Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006 outlines three scenarios-conservative, moderate, and advanced-for future worldwide wind energy development, assuming different rates of investments and capacity expansion.31 (See Figure 2.) Global wind power employment is projected to grow to as much as 2.1 million in 2030 and 2.8 million in 2050 under the advanced scenario.32 Solar Generation IV, a 2007 report by the European Photo­vol­taic Industry Association and Green­peace International, similarly projects world­wide solar PV developments via three scenarios.33 By 2030, as many as 6.3 million jobs could be created under the best case scenario.34 (See Figure 3.)

Expanding the role of renewables helps make other sectors of the economy, such as transpor­tation and buildings, more sustainable-thus greening additional jobs to some degree.


Notes to Editors:   

For more information and for a review copy of Worldwatch Report #177: Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment, please contact Supriya Kumar at

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  1. Michael Renner, Sean Sweeney, and Jill Kubit, Green Jobs: Towards Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World, Commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme for its joint Green Jobs Initiative with the International Labour Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation, forthcoming (preliminary version available at
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. China from James Kynge, "China Plans to Close Down 25,800 Coal Mines This Year," Financial Times, 11 January 1999, and from Erik Eckholm, "Dangerous Coal Mines Take Human Toll in China," New York Times, 19 June 2000; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Employment, Hours, and Earnings, database; Uwe Fritsche et al., Das Energiewende-Szenario 2020 (Berlin: Öko-Institut, 1996); U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Trade Unions Sustain­able Development Advisory Committee, A Fair and Just Transition-Research Report for Greening the Workplace (London: 2005), p. 28; South Africa from International Labour Organization, LABORSTA Labour Statistics Database, viewed 26 October 2007.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2006 (Washington, DC: 2007); U.S. Department of Labor, op. cit. note 4.
  6. Marlene Kratzat et al., Erneuerbare Energien: Brutto­beschäftigung 2006 (Stuttgart, Berlin, and Osna­brück: Zentrum für Sonnenenergie und Wasserstoff-Forschung Baden-Württemberg, Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, and Gesellschaft für wirts­chaftliche Strukturforschung, 2007).
  7. Theo Bühler, Herbert Klemisch, and Krischan Ostenrath, Ausbildung und Arbeit für erneuerbare Energien. Statusbericht 2007 (Bonn: Wissenschaft­sladen Bonn, 2007), p. 4.
  8. Joaquín Nieto Sáinz, Employment Estimates for the Renewable Energy Industry 2007 (Madrid: ISTAS and Comisiones Obreras, 2008).
  9. "Employment," Danish Wind Industry Association, at, viewed 17 October 2007.
  10. Roger Bezdek, Renewable Energy and Energy Effici­ency: Economic Drivers for the 21st Century (Boulder, CO: American Solar Energy Society, 2007).
  11. Suzlon takeover of REpower from Eric Reguly, "Germany's Green Example Could Be Revolutionary," The Global and Mail (Toronto), 28 September 2007.
  12. Greenpeace International and Global Wind Energy Council, Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006 (Amsterdam and Brussels: 2006), p. 12; Raman Thothathri, "The Wind Brought Jobs and Prosperity," New Energy, November 1999.
  13. Suzlon Energy, "Factsheet," at, and "Global Footprint," at, both viewed 17 June 2008.
  14. Worldwatch Institute, "Powering China's Development: The Role of Renewable Energy," at
  15. Li Junfeng, Deputy Director General of the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing, and General Secretary of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, discussion with Yingling Liu, World­watch Institute, 12 November 2007.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Arne Jacobson and Daniel M. Kammen, "Engineering, Institutions, and the Public Interest: Evaluating Product Quality in the Kenyan Solar Photovoltaics Industry," Energy Policy, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 2960-68; Arne Jacobson, "Research for Results: Interdisciplinary Research on Solar Electrification in Kenya," University of California at Berkeley, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, undated, at
  18. Dipal Chandra Barua, Grameen Shakti: Pioneering and Expanding Green Energy Revolution to Rural Bangla­desh (Dhaka, Bangladesh: Grameen Bank Bhaban, 2008).
  19. Worldwatch Institute, Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Energy and Agriculture (London: Earthscan, 2007), pp. 124-25; John Rumsey and Jonathan Wheatley, "Poor Practices Taint Brazil's Ethanol Exports," Financial Times, 20 May 2008.
  20. Malaysian Palm Oil Council, "The Palm Oil," at
  21. "Trilemmas-Carbon Emissions, Renewable Energy and the Palm Oil Industry," Singapore Institute of International Affairs, at
  22. Rachel Smolker et al., The Real Cost of Agrofuels: Food, Forest and the Climate (Amsterdam: Global Forest Coalition, 2007); Richard Doornbosch and Ronald Steenblik, Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? prepared for OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development, Paris, 11-12 September 2007.
  23. Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 19, pp. 124, 126.
  24. Oxfam International, "Bio-fuelling Poverty," Oxfam Briefing Note (Oxford, UK: 1 November 2007).
  25. International Labour Organization, "Indonesian Plantation Workers Still Face Lack of Labour Rights," press release (Jakarta: 26 August 2005).
  26. Friends of the Earth, LifeMosaic, and Sawit Watch, Losing Ground. The Human Rights Impacts of Oil Palm Plantation Expansion in Indonesia (London, Edin­burgh, and Bogor: 2008), p. 77.
  27. Ibid., p. 78.
  28. John P. Holdren, Final Report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation from the Woods Hole Research Center, Phase I of a Project on Linking Climate Policy with Development Strategy in Brazil, China, and India (Woods Hole, MA: Woods Hole Research Center, 2007), pp. 198, 319.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Greenpeace and Global Wind Energy Council, op. cit. note 12.
  32. Ibid.
  33. European Photovoltaic Industry Association and Greenpeace International, Solar Generation IV - 2007 (Brussels and Amsterdam: 2007).
  34. Ibid.