Working the numbers

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures for employment in renewable energy have revealed a 27 per cent increase in total employment from 2017-18 to 2018-19. The ABS estimates 26,850 Australians now work in renewable energy, with almost half of these in the more labour intensive rooftop solar sector as it steams past 2.2 million households now generating their own electricity.

Jobs are a key advocacy theme for the renewables sector as indicated by the prominence given to jobs data in the Clean Energy Council’s (CEC’s) annual Clean Energy Australia report. That report presents large-scale projects as supporting 14,679 jobs in the construction of over 11GW of utility-scale projects. Curiously this exceeds (by around 2000)the number of jobs in large-scale renewables per the ABS. It turns out this is because the CEC aggregates construction jobs for projects that took place over a three-year period. Another good reason to read the small print!

The year-on-year increase in the ABS report tracks reflects jobs growth at a similar rate to the year before. what is curious is how this apparent two-year growth in 11,000 new renewables jobs over the past two years isn’t visible in the ABS’s overall electricity supply industry data.

While overall electricity industry numbers fluctuate from quarter to quarter, the annualised average of 65,000 employees five years ago has remained constant at 65,000 in the latest February data.

Part of this may represent changing employment levels in the network sector, following a big build out in the earlier part of the 2010s. it also reflects job losses at coal fired plants (and associated mines, which are counted separately) that have closed such as Northern and Hazelwood. The latter led to the loss of around 750 jobs in the Latrobe Valley in late 2017. Fortunately, there has been a general uptick in employment in that region and it has a lower unemployment rate than Victoria as a whole.

Inevitably, as renewables replace older, largely coal-fired plants, patterns of employment will shift across the industry. To the extent the renewables jobs are “bought” with subsidies (virtually all benefit from the Renewable energy Target and many have some combination of state funding, ARENA grants or CEFC financing too), money and therefore jobs are being redirected from elsewhere in the economy.

Fundamentally, jobs are driven by the overall strength of the economy and a dynamic economy will see churn between different sectors all the time. The claims of any one sector that they are boosting employment should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Unfortunately, politicians are prone to indulge in this job creation myth by specifying job creation as both a rationale and a goal of subsidy and target schemes. Conversely, even if there was evidence that the shift to renewables results in fewer jobs overall – given their low running costs, they are likely to support fewer jobs in the long run than a traditional coal-fired plant – that would not seriously be a reason to delay the transition.