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Canberra, let renewables power this recovery

The renewable energy industry could employ thousands more Australians over the next decade, but only if we take meaningful action now.

Every dollar spent as part of Australia’s economic recovery will either help or hinder our efforts to reduce emissions and transition our country for a carbon-constrained future. With governments around the world now expanding their role in kickstarting their economies and creating new jobs, they have very binary choices to make in determining the industries and initiatives that will lead this recovery.

As we’re all well aware, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the lives of every Australian. For the lucky ones, that may have involved a change to working arrangements or home-schooling kids. However, for many other Australians, the resulting levels of unemployment and economic hardship are such that have not been experienced for decades.

The federal government has rightfully put job creation at the centre of its plans to jump-start the economy and ease the financial burden on so many Australians. Yet details on where these jobs will be created and in which industries is still up for debate.

Our recently released report titled Clean Energy at Work, makes a compelling case for the renewable energy industry to be at the forefront of these job creation efforts, with the added benefits of reducing emissions, stimulating the economy and accelerating the transition of our electricity system to renewable energy.

Clean energy job potential

Our report was based on research conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney and is the largest study of current and projected employment in the Australian renewable energy industry. The study involved an industry-wide survey, measuring current employment and then applying employment factors to the scenarios in the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) Integrated System Plan to estimate future job creation.

The study revealed that more than 25,000 people were employed in the Australian renewable energy industry in 2019, with almost 10,000 of those jobs in small-scale rooftop solar. In total, solar (small-scale, large-scale and solar water heating) accounted for 56 per cent of total renewable energy jobs, followed by wind at 28 per cent, hydro at 10 per cent and batteries at 6 per cent.

More importantly for Australia’s recovery from COVID-19, the research found that the renewable energy sector could employ as many as 44,000 people by 2025 if AEMO’s Step Change Scenario is adopted, and even more if more ambitious policy settings are implemented. The creation of almost 20,000 jobs in renewable energy over the next five years is ideally timed to help the many Australians who have been directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and by those who will feel the effects of the subsequent recession.

The report also found that the composition of the renewable energy industry is likely to change significantly over the next 15 years. By 2035, up to 70 per cent of all renewable energy job opportunities could be in rural and regional Australia, helping to redress some of the imbalance caused by the rapid migration of jobs to metropolitan centres.

The type of jobs available in the industry will also change as the industry matures. Currently, nearly 80 per cent of renewable energy jobs are short term and project-based in connection with the manufacturing, development, construction and installation of new sites. This is expected to shift considerably by 2035 when permanent jobs in operation and maintenance could account for up to half of all employment in the industry.

Policy measures required

While these findings are extremely promising for the renewable energy industry, a lot of hard work will be required to make them a reality. First and foremost, the significant growth in renewable energy employment assumes favourable policy settings. These policy settings assume that governments will make stronger and clearer policy commitments that provide investment confidence and drive reform to the energy market and grid to address the growing network constraints impacting the rollout of renewable energy.

As the past two decades have shown, efforts to accelerate emissions reduction in Australia, even to meet our Paris commitments, have been a political minefield. And unfortunately, the past summer’s bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic don’t seem to have changed the focus, with the federal government and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission enthusiastically spruiking a “gas-fired recovery” from the pandemic.

Policies must be put in place now that create a stable investment environment to bring forward the enormous pipeline of wind and solar projects across Australia. If we fail to do this, the once-in-a-generation opportunity presented by COVID-19 to transition our electricity system to one based on clean energy won’t be the only thing that’s lost.

In one of the Clean Energy at Work report’s more alarming findings, it is predicted that if we continue on our current trajectory – what AEMO deems its Central Scenario, whereby no additional state or federal policies are put in place – the industry could lose upwards of 11,000 jobs in the next three years.

Another issue for the industry now and into the future is a shortage of skilled and experienced people to work on renewable energy projects. Issues such as policy uncertainty, the short-term nature of construction and installation jobs, remote site locations and salary competition with other industries are making it difficult for the industry to attract and retain quality workers.

To solve this problem, we will need to improve existing training systems, create targeted upskilling courses for workers to transfer from other industries and invest in the training of new workers. In addition to creating much-needed new job opportunities, this will ensure that the industry has a steady supply of workers with the relevant experience and qualifications.

The unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in considerable hardship for many Australians. But as the Clean Energy at Work report shows, the renewable energy industry has the potential to get thousands of Australians back to work in rewarding jobs that create a better future and provide the regional and rural economy with a much-needed financial boost.

If we can introduce policy settings that allow the renewable energy industry to thrive, renewable energy can rescue rural Australia from the profound impacts of COVID-19 and Australia can join the hundreds of countries around the world that are using renewable energy to jump-start their economies.