Alternative energy growth will bring job growth as economy grows

Skagit Valley Clean Energy Cooperative


November 29, 2023

In the 1880s, thousands of businesses in the U.S. depended on horse-drawn transportation. Carriage manufacturers, blacksmiths, horse breeders, stables and related enterprises were major employers.

Of hundreds of American carriage manufacturers, only two – Studebaker (now out of business) and Fisher (now a part of General Motors) – made the transition to automobiles and survived past World War II. For decades, the example of the buggy whip manufacturer that failed to develop a new niche when automobiles were introduced was so over-used it had become a cliché. The transition from horses to cars for mass transportation basically eliminated long-established professions like farrier and stable hand.

However, the new industry created jobs that stable hands and buggy whip assemblers couldn’t have imagined fifteen years earlier.

As I’ve written before, we’re going through a similar technological revolution in the energy industry. The renewable energy transition is, like the auto industry before it, creating a vast array of new jobs. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, around 12 million people were employed in renewable energy globally in 2020. Their analysis suggests that up to 42 million people could be working in the renewable sector by 2050.

It has been well-publicized that jobs related to the supply and operation of fueled power plants are declining. Outside the utility industry, it’s less well-known that the number of those jobs have been declining for decades, for reasons unrelated to renewable energy. Improved materials and operating practices have reduced the need for power plant maintenance employees.

Automation of practically every aspect of power plant operation has reduced the need for operators. When I was working at a major utility almost 25 years ago, one of their coal-fired plants had already reduced its full-time workforce to just four operators. A running joke inside the company was that it wouldn’t be long till that plant would only have one operator and one dog, with all plant operations controlled by a single button. The job of the operator would be to push the button once a day, and the job of the dog would be to bite the operator if he tried to do anything else.

Geographically dispersed renewable energy plants like solar arrays and wind turbines generally don’t require operators. They do require some maintenance – solar panels need to be cleaned. However, different jobs are being created. The utility industry needs people who can do engineering work to ensure power will be delivered onto the grid safely. Downstream from solar and wind generators, utilities now need people who can analyze weather and forecast local solar generation and manage the question of which power plants on a given grid management system should be on or off.

Solar sales, installation, cleaning and systems integration jobs didn’t exist 25 years ago and are all growing fast now. The solar industry employed about 3.8 million people worldwide in 2020. Wind energy offers jobs in manufacturing, installation and maintenance of wind turbines. The wind energy sector employed over 1.2 million people globally in 2020.

The new jobs being created aren’t traditional like coal mining, but they’re growing and they pay a living wage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021 listed the median annual wage for wind turbine techs as around $56,230 and solar installers averaged $46,470.


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