Industry article

US investment into green energy is driving demand for renewables skills

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Paul Dennett
Posted on 03 Jul 2023 · 8 mins read

This blog looks at the impact of investment into the renewables industry in the US and the skills required by employers here

The United States has heavily relied on its abundant natural resources that have contributed to its role as the leading global nation for decades. However, the extent of the climate crisis has pushed the US into investing in greener and more renewable forms of energy, which has created a major demand for skills. But what does this mean for the US job market and where is the demand for these specialist skills stemming from?

Major investment

The US has seen record levels of investment in renewable energy fields, with Bloomberg estimating that this approached half a trillion dollars for the first time in 2022. This financial input has largely been focused on solar power, where investment has jumped by 36% year-on-year to $308 billion. The field has also benefitted from drastically reducing costs which has enabled more businesses and American citizens to take advantage of this particular source of clean energy.

Another leading renewable field, wind power, has seen investment remain largely static, but still strong, at almost $175bn per year, with issues around gaining planning permission unfortunately slowing progress in some cases. While these figures are impressive, they still fall short of estimates for what is needed to be on track to meet global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which is leading the government and suppliers to invest even further in renewable in the coming years, barring any significant political changes, of course. The Biden administration’s Clean Energy Plan has also contributed $85bn to the development of battery manufacturing and supply chain investments, including 111 new and expanded processing plants, which can provide enough energy to power 10 million electric vehicles each year and can meet the demand brought on by firms like Tesla.

More controversially, for some, nuclear energy has also seen major investment; the sector provides nearly 50% of the United States’ carbon-free electricity, however, recent closures of nuclear reactors across the nation have diminished the use of this energy source and contributed to increased carbon emissions. The government has allocated around $6 billion to ensure that Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, for example, continues operating safely to provide Americans with power and jobs. Other fields such as hydroelectric power, have also seen large investments, although this market is significantly more mature in the US and has been leveraged heavily since the development of the Hoover Dam almost 100 years ago.

Renewables skills shortages

However, aside from the lobbying power of more traditional energy firms, the main factor that’s holding back the renewable sector from further spreading its wings across the US is the lack of available skills in the market. According to a number of major renewable providers, there aren’t enough people even in training or education at the moment to meet current demand, and that’s before the impact of the aforementioned investment really takes hold. For renewable providers, this isn’t a new phenomenon and other countries that have pressed on with investment into the field have experienced similar growing pains. According to government data, wind technician roles are the second fastest growing in the country, second only to nurses, and while the renewable power workforce in the US numbers nearly half a million, this still isn’t enough to meet demand. Neil James, vice president of Operations Maintenance and Monitoring for Apex Clean Energy, says that wind projects in particular are struggling to find qualified technicians with the right technical, electrical and automation expertise and that "given the growth anticipated for the renewable energy industry, we expect these challenges to continue."

The skills required to build a career in the renewable industry vary but are fairly obvious; technical expertise and understanding is key. This includes having a strong knowledge of different types of energy storage technologies, such as batteries, flywheels, pumped hydro, compressed air, thermal storage, and hydrogen. It also involves knowing how to design, install, operate, and maintain renewable energy systems, such as solar, wind, hydro, biomass, geothermal, and tidal. Additionally, technical skills including being able to use software, such as modelling, simulation, optimization, data analysis, and project management tools, to plan, optimize, and evaluate energy storage and renewable energy projects are key, as are specialisms in electrics, controls and automation.

Creative approaches

US Firms are, perhaps understandably, struggling to source the skills that they need to meet growing demand and are looking to alternative locations to source talent. This task has become slightly easier following the introduction of legislative changes including the US Inflation Reduction Act which has provided a platform for government-industry collaboration; however, the main battle employers are facing is that there simply aren’t enough people with the right skills in the employment market.

Even recruiting professionals from other energy specialisms is a challenge. Currently, 25% of the energy workforce in the US is over 55 and is approaching retirement. One potential solution is to encourage more young people to work in the renewables field, however, this approach will still take time – that most firms don’t have – to come to fruition. Instead, many organisations are opting to cast a wider net and to attract people from other sectors to work within the field. Indeed, many are hiring and training people with no specific experience in energy or renewables, particularly for utility-scale wind and solar farms.

This obviously is not possible in all fields; many require electric and automation training which can take a number of years and you also wouldn’t necessarily want someone managing a nuclear power plant without significant expertise and dedicated training. As mentioned above, the skills required to work in renewables are fairly transferrable and the sector does provide the promise of a long and potentially fruitful career. Many employers are also looking to tap into underrepresented markets. Only around a third of workers in the renewables space are female and only 11% are non-white, so recruiting more broadly for talent could be an effective approach.

While the major investment going into the US renewables industry is good for the planet, actually providing the skills required to manage and lead major projects is proving challenging. For individuals working, or looking to work, in this space, there will be a range of opportunities in the coming years, however, firms will need to think more creatively if they are to be able to deliver on their promises.

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