The number of renewable energy jobs worldwide increased last year by more than a million, an 18% rise to 7.7 million, but dropped in the European Union.
The EU has said it wants to become the world number one in renewables. Its Energy Union strategy sets out measures by which it hopes to make up the gap on other countries.
EU leaders have set a target to hit 27% of the bloc’s energy consumption in 2030 to come from renewables last October. But the target is non-binding at national level, which has raised question over how the goal will be hit.
According to the latest available figures, in 2013, there was a drop of 50,000 positions in EU renewables, from 1.25 million to 1.2 million. The drop was particularly pronounced in solar, where more than a third of jobs (35%) were lost, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s Renewable Energy Job Review.
This reflected “a sharp decrease in overall investment as well as adverse policy conditions,” the report said.
Renewable energy investment across the European Union almost ground to a standstill last year, with less than 1% growth, despite a strong global rebound in financing led by China and the United States, according to figures published in March.
Global investment in renewable energies jumped by 17% to €290 billion, the first funding increase for three years, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) annual Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment report.
Five member states, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, accounted for about 70% of all renewable jobs in the EU, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Commission sources told EURACTIV that the EU still had two times more renewables jobs per capita than the world average. Between 2008 and 2013, employment in the renewables sector grew by 74% in the EU despite the financial crisis, they pointed out.
Exports to rapidly expanding markets like Asia, South America and Africa had the potential to create more work, according to the Energy Union communication.
And, according to 2011 Commission figures, the EU’s share of the world’s renewable energy patents is about 40%. This includes a 28.5% share of solar patents and a 55% share of wind patents. Patents can eventually be commercialised and brought to market.
Solar hit hardest
The European Photovoltaic Industry Association, the trade body for solar, said that cuts after the financial crisis to public support schemes in EU countries such as Spain were to blame.
Chief policy officer Frauke Thies said that the “devastating retroactive changes” had scared investors and caused the solar market in Europe to decline.
“To boost the solar uptake and the related jobs and value creation for our economy, Europe needs predictable market conditions to drive the energy transition forward, rather than hindering it,” she said.
The Energy Union strategy says stability is needed to attract investments from international funds, large scale project promoters and cooperatives and households in a market-based framework that keeps capital costs down.
The Commission also plans to facilitate cooperation and convergence of national support schemes leading to more cross border opening.
NGO Climate Action Network agreed that the changes to schemes had robbed investors of the certainty they need to back projects.
Jean-François Fauconnier, renewables policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, said, “Several member states are swimming against the global tide, hampering development of the sector with constant policy changes, and worst of all, retroactive measures reducing support systems.”
The new report showed the renewable industry was growing at a breath-taking rate, he said, creating jobs and strengthening economies around the world.
Without a strong regulatory framework, the EU would fall further behind China, the US and others in renewable investments, Fauconnier warned. A renewables target that was binding at national level would help.
The EU level target is not legally binding at the national level or EU level, and will be reviewed in 2020 “having in mind” a 30% EU-level target. Commission sources said they expected both the 2020 and 2030 targets to boost job creation.
The executive has said it will put the 2030 climate and energy targets into EU law after this UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this November. But it is unlikely to strengthen them after EU leaders watered them down.
Oliver Joy, spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association, said this year was a real opportunity for Europe’s policymakers to create the right conditions for more renewables investment.
The Commission needed to come up with a governance structure to ensure member states met the 27% renewables target, he said. The revamp of the EU’s Emission Trading System could also spur investment.
Reforms were needed to make sure energy markets and grids were fit for further integration of renewables, as the Energy Union called for.
“An ambitious climate deal [to limit global warming] in Paris at the end of the year would be the cherry on the cake,” he added.
Europe could have saved itself $100 billion (€86bn) by installing solar power panels in sunnier countries and wind turbines in windier places, the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Electricity” platform said in a report released in January.
The report, written with American consultancy Bain, added that another $40 bilion (€34.5bn) could have been saved by better cross-border coordination and bigger power cables between countries.