Thinking about alternative approaches to power the world has never been more crucial. Beyond the climate-induced energy crisis, war-induced electricity shortages and grid failure-induced blackouts, we must not forget that the number of those living without any access to electricity stands at 733 million. Decentralized renewable energy (DRE) systems play a vital role in drastically scaling up efforts towards achieving universal and sustainable energy access by quickly providing renewable electricity to the 733 million people trapped in energy poverty. This, however, requires a skilled, engaged workforce.
I believe that the clean energy sector is one field where active solidarity between established energy leaders and emerging young workforce has the potential to make a massive impact in accelerating the transition to a sustainable energy future.
Estimates from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) suggest that as many as 4.5 million off-grid, renewable energy jobs could be created globally by 2030. Despite its immense potential for growth and innovation, the clean energy sector will face a dire shortage of talent in the coming years because the rapid increase in demand for workers with experience in renewables does not match the supply of the workforce and it will take time to train people up.
At the same time, youth unemployment numbers are high in many developing countries. This year it is estimated that the global population will surpass 8 billion, with most growth concentrated in the poorest countries. Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa under age 30. The DRE sector represents a path forward to provide rural and peri-urban youth with meaningful, stable employment and a career path.
By providing youth with opportunity, education and training to allow them to fully participate in politics and society, which is critical for economic growth and stability, we can solve two problems at once.
Accessible programs are not responding fast enough or the training opportunities do not always translate to jobs.
"The barriers to entry include the lack of access to skills training programs, mentorship networks and entry-level project experience needed to enter these careers," said Helen Watts, senior director of global partnerships at Student Energy, a global youth led organization empowering young people to accelerate the sustainable energy transition.
As the DRE sector continues to mature, demand for a skilled workforce will rise exponentially as higher skills are required for more complex installations. According to Power for All’s recent DRE employment study, "Powering Jobs Census 2022: The Energy Access Workforce," as the sector matures, more skilled workers are needed. In the report, skilled workers were defined as leadership, management and professional positions including CEO, any C-level executives and technical jobs such as installation technicians or engineers. In India, 71 percent of the DRE jobs and 25 percent in Ethiopia are considered skilled; both countries are in a relatively nascent DRE sector.
"There are thousands of young people around the world who are deeply passionate about a just energy transition and have the potential to become leaders in the clean energy sector," the youth expert at Sustainable Energy for All, Akil Callender, said. "However, accessible programs are not responding fast enough or the training opportunities do not always translate to jobs."
Accessing the energy workforce
Given the importance of human capital to the spread of DRE technology and realizing the potential of both countries and communities, Power for All, a campaign to end energy poverty through accelerated deployment of decentralized renewable energy (DRE), has launched a coordinated global effort to develop a DRE-specific human capital pipeline to meet the needs of this rapidly growing sector.
Central to this effort is reliable, accessible and statistically significant data that can help funders, employers and policymakers alike ensure the growth of talent needed to scale the DRE sector. To fill this knowledge gap, Power For All is expanding on our Powering Jobs Census with a campaign to inform and mobilize support for decentralized renewables. We hope this will act as an engine for job creation. The study focused on five countries: Ethiopia; India; Kenya; Nigeria; and Uganda.
The data in the census shows the resilience of the sector despite the global pandemic. Structural barriers (foreign exchange shortages, conflict, etc.) have hindered employment growth in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia, but DRE is recovering faster than the broader economy.
Many DRE companies surveyed for the Powering Jobs Census cited critical skills gaps as a major impediment to growth, recommending to address them through upskilling including education in sales, installation and after-sales services. The companies and experts that were interviewed identified a lack of financial resources and standardized curricula as additional challenges in a widening skills gap.
The report finds that women’s participation in the DRE sector has improved in all focus countries but India. More specific, women’s participation nearly doubled in Kenya and increased by 10 percent in Nigeria. But India saw a largely pandemic-driven reduction of 9 percent. In other promising findings, the gender wage gap is smaller than the national wage gap for all focus countries, except Ethiopia.
The benefits of DRE are significant. The Powering Jobs Census shows it is making a significant impact developing economies. It is estimated the DRE will create up to half a million jobs by 2030 in Africa alone. This is on top of the broader economic and societal benefits of off-grid electrification.
A just transition will look different for all economies but job creation might be the one common denominator. The re-skilling and up-skilling of the clean energy workforce is critical for the DRE market to be able to reach its full potential of alleviating energy poverty and providing secure meaningful work. To continue to reap the benefits, the education institutions, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) companies, DRE companies and non-profit organizations must collaborate in developing skills training modules, standardized curricula and a workforce pipeline to allow more young people to enter the clean energy space.