Working With the Wind: Growing Employment in the European and US Wind Power Sectors

A new report published by the European Wind Energy Association looks at the rapidly growing wind sector jobs market, throwing up some interesting trends, and highlighting a number of opportunities and challenges for the future. Alasdair Cameron reports.

In these days of economic doom and gloom, ‘green jobs’ has become a familiar refrain among political leaders seeking to articulate a vision for the future. In Europe and North America, environmental technology is being increasingly touted as the next big thing. As one senior British politician recently put it, ‘there has been enough financial engineering, it is time for some real engineering.’

Of course, those involved in the renewable energy industry have always predicted that it would one day be an essential part of the economy and a key sector for growth. Now, a new study by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) is putting some numbers to the rhetoric, revealing that the wind energy sector alone now employs more than 150,000 people across Europe, with new prospects emerging all the time.

By sending questionnaires to companies working in the wind energy sector, EWEA has been able to piece together a revealing image of a truly diverse and international industry. From turbine and component manufacture, to project management and engineering, the industry currently employs around 108,000 individuals directly across the continent. This is more than twice the number employed in 2002, the last time a survey was conducted, and represents an annual increase of more than 12,000 jobs a year. Add to this those employed indirectly as component manufacturers, consultants, legal professionals, financial services providers and so on, and this number increases by 50% again, to around 154,000, see Table 1 left.

Of this total, turbine and component manufacturing account for the lion’s share, with these two sectors making 59% of direct employment and 69% of total employment. This fact has helped to ensure that those countries which were first to adopt wind and develop their industries are likely to be those which continue see the highest benefits in terms of employment in the future, even as their domestic demand slows down.

Other key areas of employment are wind farm development (16%), and installation operation and maintenance (11%). These are the kinds of jobs which are most easily transferable to new markets, and which make up the bulk of employment in many countries. Utilities and power providers support an extra 9%, while consultants and research and development make up 3% and 1% respectively. Finally, the specialist financial aspect of wind power development makes up around 0.3% of total direct employment.

Germany, Denmark and Spain

As with so many things in the world of renewable energy, Germany is the leader in wind energy employment, accounting for nearly 38,000 direct jobs, rising to 84,300 if indirect employment is included. In many ways this lead is unsurprising given its long-term position as one of the major wind energy markets, and indeed with more than 23,000 MW of working wind, it remains the country with the second highest installed wind power capacity (having just been overtaken by the US in 2008).

Not only does Germany have a large domestic demand for wind power technology, but the country is home to two major wind turbine manufacturers – Enercon and Nordex – as well as some smaller companies such as REpower and BARD Engineering, and a large specialist engineering and energy sector. German designers and consultancies have also been crucial to the development of wind turbine technology over the years, and are well represented in the employment stakes. Interestingly, the figures (combined EWEA and the Federal Ministry of Employment) show that only around a third of wind power jobs in Germany are direct. The explanation for this is the large number of German components and technologies which are used in turbines and parts manufactured in other countries.

The country with the next highest number of wind energy jobs – Denmark – is also unsurprising given the country’s position as a wind energy pioneer and global manufacturing hub. In 2007, wind power produced over 20% of Denmark’s electricity, and the country is a global leader in research and development and component manufacture. Furthermore, as home to Vestas and the wind manufacturing arms of Siemens, Denmark leads the world in turbine production, in 2007 accounting for around 29% of all the turbines installed worldwide. Thanks to its forward-thinking attitude to wind energy, the sector now employs some 23,500 people directly. This is particularly significant in a country of five and a half million, and in some areas wind has become the number one employer, aiding the revitalization of whole communities. 

Spain too has seen a significant jobs boost from its wind sector. Like Germany and Denmark it has been one of wind’s early adopters and can not only boast a thriving domestic market for turbines, but is also home to several manufacturers, most notably Gamesa and Acciona which between them supply about 20% of the global demand. This is reflected in the employment statistics. Of the 20,781 people estimated to be directly involved in the Spanish wind industry, 16% are employed by turbine manufacturers, with another 32% producing components for turbines. The remainder is split between project development and operation and specialist services. All in all EWEA estimates that direct and indirect employment in Spain could be as high as 37,730.

Between them, these three countries account for nearly 75% of all the wind energy jobs in Europe. This is an impressive figure, but it is down on 2002, when these countries accounted for 83% of the sector. As these traditional stalwarts of the European wind industry continue to decline relative to the size of the overall market, it seems likely that their share of the jobs sector will fall too. Nonetheless, thanks to their established strength in manufacturing, they will probably retain a portion of the jobs market that is larger than their absolute share of new installations. 

Emerging countries

Following on from, and quite someway behind the top three, are a group of nations with modest but important wind energy job markets. In many ways the status of wind employment in these countries mirrors their position in the wind power development market. France and the UK take fourth and fifth spot, with 7000 and 4000 direct jobs, respectively. Of these two, France looks set for solid growth, with its own rapidly expanding market (888 MW in 2007) spurring on the development of specialist service providers throughout the country. France, too, is the leader in anti-cyclone turbines, a niche type of turbine which can be installed without cranes. Taken together, the French National Energy Agency currently estimates that the sector will directly employ around 16,000 people by 2012.

In the UK, employment is largely driven by offshore installation and a long-standing strength in the small wind turbine sector, and the country is home to a large number of companies operating in these sectors. The UK also hosts a number of operators and developers, some of which have a strong international position. Finally, the UK’s traditional strengths in engineering, consultancy and financial services have also found opportunities in the wind sector with several leading international companies, GarradHassan and BMT, for example. Due to the higher number of people employed per MW in the installation of offshore wind compared to onshore wind, it seems likely that the UK wind energy job market could increase significantly if offshore wind realizes its potential.

Next on this list is Italy with 2500 full time jobs. This position reflects its expanding market, which in 2007 installed 603 MW of new wind. Italy is followed by the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, all of which have around 2000 people directly employed by the wind power sector. Like the UK, these countries have great potential for expansion as the offshore sector, and their own domestic markets, pick up. Sweden also has a long history of providing components to turbine manufacturers, and this is likely to continue in the future.

Greece and Ireland come next, with 1800 and 1500 jobs respectively. Although it currently has a fairly small domestic wind energy market, Greece has many separate wind farm owners, and a number of major developers have established offices there. Ireland, for its part, has major wind energy developers for instance formerly Airtricity, as well as specialist engineering, legal and financial companies. There are also companies specializing in offshore, reflecting Ireland’s position as a potential offshore wind market.

Outside of these main areas, most countries have wind energy job markets in the hundreds. A few to watch for in the future include Poland and Portugal. Interestingly, Portugal has only 800 people in direct employment in the wind sector. This is despite its position as the top 10 largest wind power markets in the world. Poland, too, is tipped as a rapidly growing wind power market, with an onshore target of 12,000 MW by 2020.

Skills shortages

Between 2000 and 2007, employment in the wind energy sector has more than doubled, while wind energy installations have increased by 339%. In light of this extraordinary growth, and the general strength of the European economies during this period, it is perhaps not surprising that many wind energy companies have reported a significant shortage of skilled workers. Manufacturers in particular are highlighting a lack of engineers, along with operation and maintenance and site managers. Project managers (those people who steer a wind farm through the maze of developmental and licensing issues) are also in short supply. In order to prevent such shortages holding back the development of the wind energy sector it is essential that greater efforts are made to promote the industry as a viable career, by reaching out to graduates and secondary school students. There are also moves afoot to standardize some of the essential wind energy skills, perhaps through the introduction of a Europe-wide diploma in wind engineering.

In the medium-term, however, it seems possible that if the wind energy sector can weather the current financial downturn and maintain a relatively good position, then it may be able to recruit skilled staff from other, harder hit sectors of the economy. If this turns out to be the case, then wind energy could emerge from the current turmoil in a strong position.

For the future

While current levels of employment are impressive, they are only a fraction of what is expected in coming years. In 2008, wind power became the largest source of new energy in Europe and with the sector expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades, it seems likely that overall employment in the sector will also increase.

According to the European Wind Energy Association, total installed capacity in Europe is expected to grow from 64 GW in 2008 to 180 GW in 2020 and 300 GW by 2030. Using this baseline scenario, and assuming predictions about the growth of offshore wind are accurate, EWEA estimates that by 2020, direct employment in the wind power sector will have more than doubled to 330,000 people. Up until 2025, EWEA estimates that onshore wind will continue to account for the largest share of this employment market, but after this, offshore will become dominant. By 2030, EWEA expects wind power to employ more than 375,000 people across Europe, with 160,000 involved in onshore wind, and a further 215,000 in the offshore sector.

A key question remains. As traditional power generation in Europe continues to decline, will the rapid expansion of wind, and other renewable energy sources, be able to provide alternatives to replace those lost jobs and industries? It is hard to say for sure, but EWEA’s estimates suggest it is likely. A report from the International Labour Organisation suggests that some 200,000 jobs could be lost from the European fossil fuel sector by the middle of the 21st century, part of a long-term process that has seen hundreds of thousands more made redundant since the late 1970s.

With US$150 billion a year flowing into the renewables sector and 227,000 new wind jobs predicted by 2030, far from being the cause of this unemployment, renewable energy could be crucial in mitigating the social and economic consequences of such a dramatic shift. Perhaps the future of the wind industry will have more in common with the current offshore energy sector, providing employment opportunities as European oil and gas supplies dwindle.

Alasdair Cameron is a freelance journalist.

Wind Jobs for the United States

Jobs in renewable energy are in the spotlight in the United States. One of the first moves by President Obama was to identify potential within the clean energy sector to increase US energy independence, reduce carbon emissions, and create an important source of jobs. The jobs aspect was a feature of February’s Economic Stimulus Bill, and go beyond wind power into different renewables and other forms of ‘clean’ energy.

Wind power is now a mainstream option for new electricity generation in the US. As a share of the entire new electric power generating capacity installed annually, wind power has expanded from less than 2% of new capacity added in 2004 to 42% of new capacity added in 2008 – second only to natural gas. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), these new installations increased the nation’s total wind power generating capacity by 50% during 2008.

What’s more, AWEA estimates that growth in the sector created 35,000 new jobs during 2008, increasing the total employment in the sector in the US to 85,000 up from 50,000 in 2007.

The share of domestically manufactured wind turbine components has grown from under 30% in 2005 to about 50% in 2008. Over the past two years (2007–2008) wind turbine and turbine component manufacturers in the US announced, added or expanded 70 new facilities, 55 of these in 2008. Jobs with those manufacturers are varied; a study from the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and Management Information Services, Inc., published at the end of 2008 looked at the typical employee profile of a 250-person wind turbine manufacturing company and identified 126 occupations – from mechanical engineers to janitors.

Of course, not all employment in the wind sector is in manufacturing – in fact, the range of jobs is broad. Of the current 85,000 jobs in the sector, AWEA reckons that about 8000 of these jobs are construction jobs (and AWEA warns that a significant number of those will be lost in 2009 if financing for the pipeline of new projects is not quickly restored). Other jobs include those in turbine component manufacturing, construction and installation of wind turbines, wind turbine operations and maintenance, legal and marketing services, and more.

What about the long-term future? As always, there are many different scenarios. But in May 2008, the US Department of Energy released a major report documenting the potential for wind energy to provide at least 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030. At that level, wind power would, it is estimated, support 500,000 jobs.

The ASES report looks at the potential for the whole renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors, and also puts forward three growth scenarios to 2030 – ‘base case’, ‘moderate’ and ‘advanced’. Within the ‘advanced’ scenario, there would be slightly over a million jobs in the wind sector by 2030 (257,000 under ‘moderate’ and 66,200 under the ‘base case’ scenario). This would include a wide range of indirect jobs, such as accountants, computer systems analysts – as well as the more obvious, direct jobs.

‘All that is needed’ says AWEA, ‘are supportive government policies that reflect a long-term national commitment to clean, home-grown renewable energy’.


Jackie Jones, editorial director, REW magazine

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