Alternate Energy and Jobs

Before reading this post, please read the About Me page, as it serves as a form of disclaimer and gives some context in regards to the purpose of this blog.

In the US, one of the biggest arguments for the continual use of fossil fuels is all of the jobs that are reliant on those industries.  The extraction of coal, oil, natural gas, etc. is one major job sector that has been consistently decreasing over the years.  For coal mining specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has information available on the number of coal mining jobs for every month since 1985.  In January 1985 there were about 170,500 coal mining jobs in the US.  This declined consistently to January 2004 where the number of jobs was only 68,800.  There was a slight increase the following years until it declined again at the start of 2012 to the preliminary estimate of about 53,000 May of 2018. 

There is no single reason for the decline of these jobs.  Advancing technology has removed the need for large numbers of miners with pickaxes extracting coal by hand by allowing for large machines to carve up the ground and gather coal en masse.  Additionally, power plants becoming more efficient or moving away from coal towards cheaper alternatives allows for coal mining to decrease as demand is lower.  Regardless, it is very unlikely that coal mining jobs will return to pre-2000s levels.

The 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report examines jobs across the energy sector in 2016 and breaks it down into different categories.   Electric Power Generation and Fuels technologies employed 1.9 million workers in 2016.  This focuses on jobs in power plants and refining fuels rather than extraction or distribution.  Also included are low-carbon emitting energy sources such as renewables, nuclear, and lower emitting natural gas.  Of the 1.9 million workers, 1.1 million work in traditional coal, oil, and gas, while 800,000 work with the low carbon emitting sources.  Just under 374,000 people work for either partly or fully for solar firms, with 260,000 working mostly on solar energy alone.  For wind farms across the country, 102,000 people are employed.  For job creation in these two sectors in 2016, solar grew by 25% and wind grew by 32%.  As renewable energy sources continue to grow in popularity and availability, new installations will be made, new companies will be founded, and plenty of jobs may be created in coming years.

The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy published a list of the 5 fastest growing jobs in clean energy on April 24, 2017.  Wind turbine technicians were the fastest growing job in the US at the time of publication, with an impressive 108% growth expected by 2024.  As more wind farms are set up across the country, more and more people will need to be trained to climb to the top of these massive turbines for maintenance (something I could NEVER do) to ensure clean energy continues to be fed into the grid.  Clicking the image below will take you to a YouTube video showing a crew performing maintenance on a turbine.

turbine technician.png

It was estimated that in 2016, one out of every 50 new jobs came from the solar industry.  The core of the industry lies with the solar installers.  These people could work for large companies to build solar farms, or could be smaller businesses that help businesses or households save on energy by installing smaller solar panels on the buildings.  Clean car engineers are becoming more and more in demand as companies such as Tesla innovate the automobile industry with increasingly Eco-friendly vehicles.  These vehicles don’t have to be electric cars; hydrogen and natural gas are also some alternatives to traditional gasoline that are significantly less polluting.  Construction companies are also benefiting greatly from the push to being more green.  The construction industry hosts nearly 1.4 million jobs working with energy efficiency.  Construction companies have roughly 74% of their workforce spends at least half of their time on improving energy efficiency.  A variety of jobs are required to build these environmentally sustainable buildings from architects to carpenters and heavy equipment operators.  Sustainability professionals are hired by companies to help make sure companies have buildings that can energy-efficient, sustainable, and resilient to future problems.  They also work with companies to plan their growth to be more sustainable so that they are ahead of the curve in terms of green energy and emissions reductions.

The changes to infrastructure that would need to be done to accommodate more renewable energy plants hooked up to the grid.  New power lines would need to be installed that lead to new plants and can handle the extra power into the grid.  Also battery farms will need to be installed and the power grid will need to be adjusted and updated to accommodate vast amounts of energy storage.  Essentially, while a large number of jobs may be lost as fossil fuels are slowly phased out of use, plenty of jobs are being made to install, maintain, and prepare for renewable energy sources.  Hopefully workers for fossil fuel industries can be retrained to find employment in renewable energy.

Advertisements

Economics and Renewable Energy

Before reading this post, please read the About Me page, as it serves as a form of disclaimer and gives some context in regards to the purpose of this blog.

There are a large variety of reasons different groups may show interest in renewable energy.  Environmental groups and advocates for action to combat climate change may push for renewable energy in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions and overall pollution reduction.  Politicians could back renewable energy to be more appealing to their constituents by appearing to be considerate of the environment.  Businesses may do the same to appeal to customers or to save money on energy by using renewable energy.  Even if one does not support using renewable energy as a way to combat climate change, the economic impacts of renewable energy are undeniable.

In previous posts I have discussed how renewable energy such as solar power can change the energy sector in the United States and create jobs with construction and maintenance.  I have also discussed how around the world, renewable energy is changing how nations generate and use energy.  More recently, I examined how advancing technology is revolutionizing energy production, and how global energy infrastructure needs to adapt to deal with the extra energy.

A major driver to shift to renewable energy from fossil fuels is the differences in costs.  Energy from renewable resources is often cheaper than energy from fossil fuels, especially when you factor in extraction and refining and transport.  A Forbes article from January 2018 explores a report claiming that renewable energy will be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020.  The report by the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) notes that since 2010, the price of onshore wind energy has dropped by 23% and solar (photo-voltaic specifically) by 73%.  Imagine if the price of gasoline dropped 73% since 2010, the implications would be huge.  Unfortunately that isn’t the case, but green energy sources will continue to become cheaper.  Energy generated by fossil fuels generally costs between 5 cents and 17 cents per kWh.  The cost of energy produced by onshore wind farms is on average 6 cents per kWh, with some going as low as 4 cents per kWh.  Photo-voltaic solar energy costs on average 10 cents per kWh.  The report predicts that within two years, the cost of energy from onshore wind and PV solar will be as low as 3 cents per kWh.  These graphs from a December 2016 report by Lazard show the significant reduction in prices of solar PV and wind energy over the past few years.  (Clicking the image should take you to a larger image that is easier to read).https://c1cleantechnicacom-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/files/2016/12/low-costs-solar-wind-drop.png

Energy being cheaper to produce through renewable means would have a significant impact not just in the US but internationally.  Nations will be more able to become energy independent and rely significantly less on fossil fuels as an energy producer for the nation.  Nations where oil is nearly their entire economy will suffer in the long run as the world needs to import less oil to power their countries.  Other countries with geography that is very well suited to producing solar, wind, or hydroelectric power in large quantities may export it to nations that can’t produce enough energy for themselves.  The move away from fossil fuels in the US would have a significant impact on the economy due to the influence and size of the oil industry.  Oil and coal companies are unsurprisingly fighting the growing popularity and availability of renewable energy sources.  Their heavy influence in politics prevents or severely weakens legislation that would allow for renewable energy to expand across the country.

One major roadblock for renewable energy is the inability to match demand as easily as fossil fuels.  As this paper by Tufts University discusses, power plants using fossil fuels like natural gas can usually be turned on and be running quickly to meet a surge in demand.  The fossil fuels also provide consistent energy, so it is fairly easy to match generation to patterns of energy usage by consumers.  Solar energy only generates energy during the day, hydroelectric can be significantly reduced by droughts, and wind power is dependent on the weather.  Unless it is being used just as an added source of power, such as solar panels on someone’s home, having only one renewable energy source as a way to power a grid is not feasible at this time.  Instead, using different types of renewable energy together can help make up for their individual drawbacks.

Another setback is energy storage, which would help current energy set ups as well.  Companies like Tesla are developing better batteries for home use and their electric cars, but large industrial batteries for solar or wind farms are not as effective as they need to be.  Batteries with more storage capacity would allow current power setups to incorporate renewable energy sources into the grid and not have to worry about too much energy being forced into the system.  Our current electrical infrastructure is not able to effectively adapt to the fluctuations that come from renewable power.  More efficient and larger capacity batteries can help lower the need for fossil fuel power plants to be active as much, or possibly some plants can even be removed entirely if the energy from the renewable sources is enough.  Additionally, power generation would not need to be matched exactly to expected consumer demand.  Large battery farms could store all of the excess power that isn’t used during peak hours and could supply the grid when little power is needed such as at night.  Alternatively, during lulls in power consumption, energy can be stored in preparation for peak hours, or even just in case of surges in usage.  Once better batteries are developed, the energy sector can move to renewable sources more firmly without having to worry about not meeting demand as much.

A vital part of economics is employment.  One of the biggest arguments about getting rid of fossil fuels is the amount of jobs that would be lost in the oil, coal, and natural gas industries.  I will try to address this argument and go into more detail about jobs and renewable resources in my next post.

Technology and Renewable Energy

Before reading this post, please read the About Me page, as it serves as a form of disclaimer and gives some context in regards to the purpose of this blog.

As the world moves to implement increasing amounts of renewable energy production, the economics of this rapidly expanding industry become a higher priority for governments and companies around the world.  Countries such as China scramble to secure contracts to build hydroelectric dams in Latin America, Africa, and Asia while Spain works with Morocco to build massive solar installations.  From large-scale projects to small home installations, the demand for efficient and affordable renewable energy has prompted researchers to rush to advance the technology of renewable energy.  Governments and companies also are investing in the research and development of more efficient photo-voltaic cells for solar panels, more efficient wind and hydroelectric turbines, and batteries that can hold more charge for longer periods of time.  Researching, manufacturing, and installing renewable energy plants gives an edge economically if you can corner the market, and also increases standing in the international community as the world moves away from fossil fuels.  As I mentioned in my last post, China is stepping up as a major power in renewable energy.

The solar power market in particular is something China is dominating, using their significant manufacturing potential to mass produce highly efficient solar cells.  This Reuters article discusses some of the ways China is shaping the solar industry.  Currently, the most advanced and most efficient solar technology is used in places such as satellites.  However, China is pushing the industry in mass producing these advanced solar cells in order to make them more affordable, thus making them more attractive to users in public sectors.  China is also ramping up production of single silicon crystalline cell solar cells, which are becoming cheaper to make than multi crystal cells which aren’t as efficient but were used for their lower cost.  Some predictions even say that these single crystalline cells will make up 50 percent of the market, up from the 20 percent they are at today.  These cells aren’t a new discovery, but lower costs will drive up energy production as their installation and use becomes more widespread.  This CNN article has a neat little video of a solar farm in China that floats on a flooded coal mine, and also has additional information on China’s impact on the solar industry in the article itself.

As for wind energy, the US government has some information available to the public on the Department of Energy’s website about their next generation of wind turbines.  A very small bit of background for wind energy in the US first.  Wind turbines today are much more efficient and cost-effective than those installed in the previous decades, as to be expected.  For example, wind turbines today have a productivity value of about 35 percent on average, which is a fair increase from before 1998 (at 22 percent) and 2000 (at 30 percent).  The price of energy generated from wind turbines in the US has dropped significantly from 1980 as well, going from over 55 cents per kilowatt-hour to under 3 cents per kWh.  While the wind turbines may not seem as effective as solar panels, it is worth noting that they require significantly less land area to operate optimally.  Clicking on the image below will lead to a time-lapse video of a wind turbine being constructed. 

The Department of Energy is also working on researching and studying the interactions between energy grids and renewable energy sources such as solar or wind farms.  They hope to learn how to modify existing energy grids to be able to accept and distribute all of the energy created by these sources, without being overwhelmed as they are currently.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is also researching this issue, albeit with emphasis on offshore wind farms.  Their website has neatly outlined information on what it is they do, and hope to achieve.  They also are taking into consideration factors such as shipping routes, fishing areas, protected wildlife sanctuaries, as well as general ecological impact of installing and running offshore wind farms.  NREL works with the DOE on more than just offshore wind farms.  The lab strives to make wind energy a more accessible means of energy production on land as well.  some of their research is aimed towards reducing costs of installation and increasing the capacity and efficiency of turbines and plants, as well as make it easier to obtain certification to build smaller scale turbines.  In addition, they partner with manufacturers in order to come up with better components and overall designs to decrease manufacturing costs, keep up with demand, and lower costs for consumers.

Overall, the world as a whole is researching and implementing better technology and methods of renewable energy production and storage.  Many companies around the world are competing to become the forefront of their respective sectors of the energy industry, and governments are more than willing to invest to get an edge on rivals.  No matter what the motives behind the technological advancements, a shared result is the decreased use of fossil fuels as renewable energy becomes an ever-increasing source of power around the world.  The International Energy Agency was originally founded in 1974 to help countries respond to oil supply disruptions.  This group now focuses on helping its member countries and the international community as a whole gain access to means of renewable energy production.  They also work to keep track of and predict global renewable energy production.  This page on their site has many interactive graphs and graphics detailing recent changes in production as well as predictions on the growth of renewable energy globally. 

The page notes that in the coming years, three countries will contribute to most of the world’s expansion of renewable energy sources.  These are the two largest economies in the world China and the United States, as well as one of the large rapidly growing economies: India.

With these three nations leading the world in renewable energy production, hopefully we will see a decrease in energy prices, more innovation to use and adapt these technologies in other ways such as transportation, and a global decrease in reliance on fossil fuels.  I personally hope it will lead to some more cooperation between these nations in other areas as well.

Renewable Energy Around the World

Before reading this post, please read the About Me page, as it serves as a form of disclaimer and gives some context in regards to the purpose of this blog.

 

In recent years, the international community has made a general consensus to move away from fossil fuels and invest in various forms of renewable energy.  While developing countries are still using fossil fuels to spur their growth, more modern countries such as those in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and most of Asia are investing in building and researching renewable energy sources.  Nations that rely on imported fuel sources can especially benefit from generating their own power.  For many others, investments in renewable energy has meant much lower prices for consumers.

Germany had a significant price drop for energy last December that gave many Germans a nice present early Christmas morning when prices actually dropped into the negative.  This New York Times article notes that at times consumers were paid more than 60$ per megawatt-hour to use energy.  A number of countries in Europe including Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland experience these significant drops in prices.  While negative prices aren’t too rare, they occur often enough to bring to light some of the problems that cause the drops.  The unpredictable nature of solar and wind power in particular can put strain on the existing infrastructure that was built for coal and oil powered plants.  The infrastructure can be overwhelmed during spikes of power generation by renewable sources when coal and oil plants can’t lower output fast enough to compensate.  This requires the excess energy to be used up or exported, since the technology for efficient enough batteries and capacitors does not exist at this time.  While this can be a headache for the people who run and manage the grid, it show that infrastructure in these areas need upgraded, and that resources need invested in creating batteries that can store more energy more efficiently.  The countries in Europe are fairly small in land area and population compared to some of the other powers around the globe, and don’t all have the resources to spare on innovation and production of renewable energy.

Leaders in renewable energy don’t have to be global superpowers or large established industrialized nations.  On the coast of Africa, Morocco is home to the largest solar farm on Earth, and is continuing to build new installations to increase their energy independence.  A Renewable Energy World article written by Dr. Hassan Nfaoui gives a great blend of historical, geographical, and economical context for Morocco’s boom in renewable energy.  The location of Morocco’s solar plants receives an impressive 7.9 to 11.2 hours of sunlight a day on average.  This gives significant potential for solar power generation.  Combined with average wind speeds of 10m/s in some areas, 7 to 8.5m/s in others, there are plenty of places for renewable energy production.  Considering that 96 percent of Morocco’s energy is imported, and their energy consumption increases about 8 percent annually, it is unsurprising that the King of Morocco gave the green light for the construction of the Noor solar energy project.  This video by PBS goes into more detail about how the solar farm works and some of the future plans for the project.  There is a transcript below the video if needed.  By 2030, Morocco plans to produce 10,090 MW of energy annually through renewable means (this includes hydroelectric power).  This will put them well on their way to becoming “The Saudi Arabia” of renewable energy like some want.

Due to international efforts such as the Paris Agreement, many nations that contribute very little to atmospheric pollution and carbon emissions have started making strides to convert to renewable energy.  Many of the bigger producers face more significant challenges in converting their energy infrastructure, and are making slower changes as a result.  However, one country has begun to overhaul its energy production from being one of, if not the largest user, of fossil fuels. China.  China’s industrialization efforts exploded in the 20th century and as a result they have become a global economic superpower.  This growth comes at a cost though, as major cities, especially Beijing, have become known for horrible air qualities, seen in this image from CNN.Image result for beijing pollution

Despite their significant use of fossil fuels, China has begun investing heavily in renewable energy.  This Futurism article cites the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), stating that China invested over 32 billion dollars in 2016, and over 44 billion in 2017.https://i0.wp.com/ieefa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/ChineseOverseasInvestments.png  Their commitment to the Paris Agreement goes beyond adding renewable energy.  The Chinese government went after factories that didn’t abide by new regulations for emissions, resulting in 40% of their factories being shut down.  An IEEFA report states that with the US out of the Paris Agreement, China has taken the opportunity to step up as a major contributor both financially and technologically.  Already a global manufacturing powerhouse, China now holds about 60 percent of the worlds solar cell manufacturing.  Their impact on renewable energy doesn’t just stay in their country, Chinese companies are spreading across the globe as they build renewable energy plants in countries around the world.  These companies are focusing hydro power in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, growing China’s economic influence.  The report also mentions that China is securing more and more of the world’s cobalt market, due to their own miners extracting 62 percent of the cobalt mined in 2017.  Cobalt is an important part of more modern solar panels as it increases the efficiency of the solar cells.  With all these factors and more combined, China is set to become a global superpower in regards to renewable energy.

The research and development of more efficient solar cells and batteries that are more efficient and hold more power can give a nation an economic boost as the world buys their products.  China is leading in these areas, but there are more sources of renewable energy than just solar energy.  My next post will be about the different technologies being researched for renewable energy sources, and which countries are ahead in these areas.

Benefits of Renewable Energy

Before reading this post, please read the About Me page, as it serves as a form of disclaimer and gives some context in regards to the purpose of this blog.

Renewable energy has held a large place in the public eye for a number of decades now.  Recently due to ever-increasing concern over climate change, sources of renewable energy have been sought after and improved upon by groups all around the world.  Whether it is to reduce emissions from or reduce dependence on fossil fuels, make a country less dependent on foreign energy imports, or simply to lower energy costs, renewable energy is becoming an increasingly important part of society.

Of all the different types of renewable energy, solar energy is the most accessible to the average American.  While wind energy can be practical in areas like the great planes or the desert southwest, solar power can be collected across the country.  According to a CNBC article, solar panel installations doubled in 2016 over 2015 in the US.  Whether it is residential, commercial, or industrial solar farms, an increasing amount of energy is being produced and made available to consumers.  California has invested significantly in solar energy, now producing so much that neighboring states like Arizona have to be paid to take the excess.  This LA Times article notes that 26% of California’s energy production was from renewable sources in 2016, growing from 15% in 2010.  A significant portion of that increase was due to solar power, shown in this chart from the article.  Screenshot-2018-2-16 California invested heavily in solar power Now there's so much that other states are sometimes paid to[...]

Also mentioned in the article is that energy providers continue to push for more natural gas power plants to be built, claiming they need to be built closer to cities than the solar farms in the desert.  Although they cite peak time congestion as a reason to build the plants, critics note that the transmission lines, even if more are added, won’t be any less congested just because there are more plants.

Governments at the state and federal levels provide a plethora of tax incentives for various alternative energy and energy efficient purchases.  Savings for residential, commercial, industrial, and other areas can be searched for on the Department of Energy’s website.  In addition to these savings, the cost of solar panels has continuously dropped in recent years in every market.  This Berkeley Lab article from August 2016 cites two of its studies showing prices reaching record lows.  This graph from the article shows the decrease in cost from 2010 through 2015.SolarPic1Many families have chosen to install solar panels on their homes in order to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions or simply save money on their electric bill.  A Boston University article opens with an example of one family that saved $14,500 on the installation of their solar panels from federal and state tax credits.  Their savings on their electricity bill went about $200 a month average to almost zero excluding during the winter.  Sometimes excess energy can even be sold back to power companies to get some credit back.  A study done by Boston University professor Robert Kaufmann found that the approximately 40,000 households and community groups in Massachusetts that use solar panels are actually lowering prices for over 3 million energy consumers in the state.  The study shows that people who own the solar panels aren’t the only ones saving money on their electric bills.  Considering the cost of solar panels per watt in the US in 2014 was a third of what it was in 1998, solar energy is becoming even more economically viable than ever before.

California is by far the largest producer of solar energy in the United States, but there are plenty of other states benefiting from this renewable resource.  The Solar Energy Industries Association provides plenty of information regarding solar power on their website, including a top ten list of solar producing states.  California may produce the most energy overall, but Nevada produces 745 watts per person to California’s 446.  Overall, states across the country are utilizing more and more renewable energy sources to help with an ever increasing energy demand.  An interactive map in a Renewable Energy World article allows you to additions to solar energy capacity in 2016, as well as the companies that own the plants and how much is produced there.  Up and down the east coast, solar farms are being constructed because of tax incentives, reduction in emissions, and lowering energy costs for surrounding communities.

The price to install solar panels in residential areas has decreased to less than half of its price in the late 90’s.  This blog post by Robert Fares on the Scientific American Blog Network addresses the significant decline of prices for solar power.  Robert predicts that with the continued drop in price in 2015, solar energy may become even more prevalent economic competition for the more conventional producers of power.  Utility scale solar providers, meaning the large solar farms that feed energy directly into the grid, continue to be much cheaper than residential or other non-commercial alternatives.  The price per watt comparison is clear in the above graph that Robert also cites from Berkley Labs.  Residential solar installations are the most expensive in therms of $ per watt, but their decrease in price is detailed in this graph from 1998 to 2015 that Robert also cited from Berkley Labs.

However, it is worth noting that the graph shows the median price and that every supplier may charge different rates for their installations.

To summarize, solar energy has and continues to grow in significance and availability.  It used to be expensive and only practical in large arrays that weren’t very efficient, but now solar panels can be found on houses and businesses across the country.  As technology continues to improve, solar power will become more and more efficient and affordable.  The technology that allows us to power robots on other planets and charge satellites in orbit is becoming a sound investment for governments, companies, and the average citizen.  In my next blog post I plan to discuss solar and renewable energy in general in terms of the international community, and how some countries may even utilize it to boost their economies and others to become the world power in the industry.