Op-ed: The future of cleantech jobs
The United States is entering its tenth year of the renewable energy revolution and there’s no slowdown in sight, only more adaptation. Over this time, clean energy jobs have grown 12 times faster than the overall job market, and renewables was one of the very few growth areas during the 2008 recession. The last two years have been no different, with both solar and wind growing at over 20% annually. Compare this to coal which has shed jobs for its fifth consecutive year. At a recent industry conference, a Colorado legislator said that his state is eliminating coal energy at an extraordinary pace—formerly, coal comprised two-thirds of the energy generated, now it is about 50%, and major goals are in place to reduce it to only 25% in a short period.
Considering that the US added 25% less jobs in 2016 than 2015, this is even more impressive. As of late, decreasing costs of manufacturing and installation have been the biggest catalyst for growth. Wind and solar added nearly 100,000 jobs last year and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and wind turbine technician is the fastest growing occupation in America.
I compare this progression to the dot-com boom of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The similarities start with the huge interest and investment from the venture capital and private equity communities. For Internet start-ups, there was an unbalanced ratio of hiring companies to qualified applicants. I recall the frenzy of recruiting during these times, and typically, as long as the candidate showed up for the interview, they got the job. While it was fun making money, I truly knew this accelerated hiring pattern wasn’t sustainable for the long haul. Over the last seven years, now recruiting in the clean tech space, I’ve seen a similar supply and demand problem surface multiple times.
The major difference between the dot-com era and clean tech boom is that deep-rooted issues — climate change and corporate sustainability — push the agenda beyond speculators on Wall Street and San Francisco trying to make a quick buck. Large and powerful economic and social forces continue to voice concern about caring for their impact on the environment, not only the federal government (although maybe not so much these last few months) and individual states, but also major corporations like Walmart, IKEA, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the list goes on. Whether it’s for PR and/or so they can sleep better at night, they are making the steps towards cleaner practices, and more companies are joining the parade daily. The US has multiple states with renewable energy mandates, tax credits, and incentives for selling energy back to the grid. Universities have developed new graduate programs in sustainability and environmental compliance, and trade schools are offering specialization in areas like solar photovoltaic installation and wind turbine technology. A growing set of skilled jobs means that clean energy is not a fad and will continue to grow.
Where will the next revolution of clean tech jobs come from in the US? It’s already happening: clean tech 2.0. The first half of 2016 saw nearly 65,000 new electric vehicles (“EVs”) hit the road, an almost 20% growth from the same period in 2015. Today nearly 300,000 Americans work with EV or alternative fueled vehicles.
While sophisticated and relatively reliable, the US electrical grid still had 4,000 blackouts last year and 25% of these are from unknown causes. Modernizing, equipment upgrades, and connecting the grid is a lot of work and in demand. Grid modernization created over 100,000 jobs in 2016 and is expected to add another 280,000 jobs this year in making the grid smarter and connected. Energy storage deployments have doubled from 2015 to 2016, and the battery storage market has grown 284% and is expecting to grow another 47% in 2017. Battery storage could be the holy grail of electrical outages and many investors and manufacturers are banking on it.
According to the theory of Internet of Things Technology (“IoT”), for every living person on earth, there will be between two and six things connected things by 2020. Some of the IoT technology is spilling into clean tech and grid modernization. You can adjust your home thermostat from your Apple Watch; you can monitor your solar farm to find out which module is not performing to spec; you can remotely stall your wind turbine when a hurricane is imminent. Connecting your clean energy investments saves money, makes the power plants more efficient, and limits downtime.
The clean tech 3.0 revolution will happen. I don’t know what this will be, and I’m not sure anyone can define it right at this moment. Will it mean solar roads instead of interstates? Will it entail solar paint on every electric vehicle so you never need a charging station? Your guess is as good as mine, but rest assured, I’ll be on top of it, helping companies find the best talent to make the clean tech 3.0 revolution boom.