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Solar industry provides far more jobs in Australia than coal

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Despite Australia’s history as a coal-fired economy, the nation’s solar industry employs a “far larger” amount of people than its fossil-fuelled power stations, a new report has found.

The report, released on Monday by The Australia Institute says that in 2014, 4,300 solar PV businesses employed 13,300 people in Australia – a vast increase on 2008 numbers, when the industry only employed 1,800 people.

This was a “far larger” amount that the total employed in Australia’s coal-fired power stations, said the report, and a good deal larger that the total number of people working in the entire electricity generation sector, which amounted to 9,487 in 2007 according to the ABS, a figure which also included those employed in gas, hydro and renewable energy generation.

“Since 2007.” says the report, “no new coal-fired power stations have been built, but a number have been mothballed, including Tarong in Queensland and Munmorah in NSW.”

And Australia’s biggest existing coal-fired power generators, such as Macquarie Generation and Stanwell, employed only 642 and 800 FTE workers respectively, said the TAI.

Australia’s solar PV industry, meanwhile, had seen rapid expansion in recent years, as the report illustrates in the graph reproduced below. And it is estimated that an additional 8,000 jobs will be created in the four years from 2014 to 2018.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 1.33.10 PM“The solar industry is likely to become an even bigger employer in the near future as the price of both solar panels and battery storage come down,” says the report.

“Australian governments have a unique opportunity to help the solar industry by lowering the regulatory burdens faced by the industry and shaping our electricity grid to allow solar to compete on a more level playing field. As discussed above, the sooner such an accommodation is made the smoother the transition will be and, in turn, the lower the cost to industry and households.

As a side note, the report also notes that a recent examination of the productivity of solar panel installation found that Australian workers were superior to their US counterparts.

Quoting analysis by America’s the Rocky Mountain Institute, TAI says Australian installers were averaging 6.1 labor-hours per kW solar installed, compared to installers in the US, who were more than 50 per cent less efficient at 9.4 labor- hours per kW installed.

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  • Geoff James

    This is a great figure to work with, thanks. However, a fair comparison should include the number of people employed in coal mines and coal transport, in proportion to the fraction of Australia’s coal production that is used for domestic electricity production – that is, not counting coking coal and exported thermal coal. Does anyone know these employment figures?

    • michael

      correct, that would be the relevant comparison. (might not suit the message Australia Institute wanted to put out there though.)

    • Geoff James

      Okay, I think I’ve worked it out. From the IEA’s Key World Energy Statistics 2013 (http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/key-world-energy-statistics-2013.html) on p 15 Australia’s coal production was 421 Mt and export 302 Mt hence 119 Mt used in Australia. From the same report p 25, our electricity production from coal was 173 TWh (2011 data) which corresponds to 26 Mt of coal using the conversion factor on p 58 and the calorific value on p 59. Thus, only 6% of our coal production is used for domestic electricity generation. Now for the jobs part. From the Australian Coal Association (may as well use a friendly source for that side of the equation too: http://www.newgencoal.com.au/coal-a-energy-security/australian-jobs.html) there were 40,000 people directly employed by the Australian coal industry in 2011. It isn’t clear whether this includes transport but probably it does. This means about 2,400 people were directly employed in producing coal for electricity generation in Australia that year. This figure should be added to those employed in the generation industry – and probably the total will still be less than 13,300. The Australia Institute could have done a better job than me making a fair employment comparison.

      • Geoff James

        So I guess the other 93 Mt of coal were used for steel production, 3.5 times as much as for electricity? Sounds incredible but someone may know better than me about this.

      • JonathanMaddox

        Nice try, but there’s a mistake. You’ve calculated an energy equivalent, but neglected to account for heat losses in electric generation.

        Thermal power stations produce electric energy equivalent to 25%-60% of the thermal energy they use, depending on they type of fuel and the technology used. One of our largest coal-fired power stations, Hazelwood, is right at the bottom of that efficiency scale with a 26% thermal efficiency. Typically brown coal power stations are near the bottom of that range, though some of Germany’s newest ones are above 40%. No coal-fired power station has better than 48% efficiency and only our newest, Kogan Creek, would be close to that.

        A kilogram of black thermal coal might yield 7 kWh of heat energy, but only 3 kWh of electrical energy. 1 kg of brown coal both has less energy in the first place and is burned in a less efficient power station, so it might yield only 1 kWh of electricity.

        Consumption of coal for electric power generation in Australia must be up around 80-90 megatonnes. I wish the exact figure(s) were published, it would make this sort of exercise so much easier :-)

    • Geoff James

      Thanks Jonathan, you’re right, so dividing by an average coal plant efficiency of, say, 40% gives about 6,000 jobs to mine and transport coal for generating electricity in Australia. This should be added to the jobs in generation plants, with 69% of production being from coal (from BREE), giving around 6,500 jobs. So we can estimate, in a balanced way, that coal-generated electricity provides around 12,500 jobs which is now exceeded by the number of solar jobs. So that is indeed a landmark.

      • Peter F

        On the right track but still too high. There are very few coal power stations, if any in Australia with rated efficiency of 40%. Given that there is always around 10% spinning reserve (i.e running but generating little more than enough power to run itself) and the fact that most of the time generators are running at part load, in practice the average in Australia is around 50-55% utilization, then efficiency is significantly reduced. The turbine output average efficiency across all stations over the year would be less than 30% probably more like 27-28% dragged down by Victorian brown coal. Also the efficiency is quoted at the turbine output. Depending on the feeding and cooling technology a power station uses between 3 and 7% of its output just to run its own fans pumps cooling towers etc. hence the delivered energy efficiency to the grid is less than 25% of the thermal value of the coal. Thus the mining and transport numbers are higher still. So in total coal still probably slightly outnumbers solar.

  • evanjones99

    The RAA report cited as source in the footnote details direct + indirect employment for the solar PV market (23,500 in 2012, with 5,800 jobs lost in 2013). Putting aside issues with indirect employment, the TAI report doesn’t indciate whether it is using direct or direct + indirect electricity generation employment in its comparison.

  • Ken Dyer

    Coal powered power stations have also been mothballed in South Australia and replaced by wind energy. Even as coal declines in Australia, it is still ramping up in India, for example. For this reason, it is probably not that accurate to compare employment in the different industries in Australia. One needs to compare on a global basis, and the truth is that today coal and other fossil fuels provide over 80% of power needs with renewables about 8%. Coal will be with us for the next 100 years or so, and its use will only slowly decline as renewables start to surge in the next 30-40 years..

    • Keith

      Ken, are you watching the trajectory of adoption of renewables?

      In South Australia, renewables have come from nowhere to 30% and soon 40% of total electricity generation in that state. The only reason similar things aren’t happening in Victoria and NSW is determined rearguard action by the fossil fuel industry in cahoots with Govt.

      In China, a few years ago it looked like China would install 1GW of solar by 2020. Now it looks like it will be 100GW!! (that’s a 2 log increase in a few years!!).
      Wind projections in China were 8GW by 2020 only a few years ago. The latest projections for wind in China by 2020 are 230GW, with plans for 1000GW by 2050 (I bet they get there much earlier).

      The thing about wind and solar is that they are rapidly implementable (as they need to be if we are to cap emissions in time to prevent more than 2C warming.

      The new PM in India has plans to have 300 million people without any electricity provided with basic electricity using solar power by 2019 … that seems ambitious, but a village implementation of simple lights, mobile phone chargers and cookers seems quite doable. India can’t afford to use coal as it is too polluting and expensive.

      It is really important to look not at what is installed now, but the rate of implementation of solar and wind.

      Your views about coal might have seemed reasonable a decade ago, but I would argue that they are increasingly outdated as the revolution gets implemented.

      • Nonrev

        Hi Keith, I have in front of me a global graph showing renewables ramping up 90% between now and 2050. But it is from a low base.

        In 2012, fossil fuels provided about 87% of the world’s energy, with renewables about 8%. The problem is that as China and India standard of living rises so does energy use, and CO2 emissions. So whilst Australia might be 100% renewables in the short term, coal will still be used extensively in these developing countries. The latest coal word, Adani.

        I already have PV and plan to install battery storage in the near future and go off grid, and bugger Hazelwood power station.

        Until the mining of fossil fuels negatively impact GDP, the increasing of which is the holy grail of government and our economic leaders, the development of renewable energy will increase slowly.

        The most common sense I have read about this recently is at http://www.2052.info, but I hope that its forecasts prove pessimistic.

        • Keith

          Hi Nonrev,

          As I indicated to Ken, the key is the rate of scale-up.

          China is the key as they are getting their act together and they don’t have the fossil fuel legacy issues that we have.

          Given their current trajectory, they’ll get to 500GW wind by 2030 and 1000GW well before 2050.

          Solar has come from a lower base, but the amazing innovation and scale-up means that most experts believe that solar will soon overtake wind, in which case China will have 1000GW solar maybe before wind gets there (ie well before 2050.

          With 2000GW solar + wind, plus hydro and storage (solar thermal) and they won’t need any fossil fuels for electricity, nor for transport as EVs take over.

          The penny is starting to drop in the US where it is appreciated that this is an enormous and game changing development. They don’t want to miss the innovation, so China is dragging the US along. Europe is ready and well down the track.

          India is on a different trajectory as they won’t go the massive infrastructure route that China is undertaking. Modi is interesting in addressing things differently, getting everyone with basic electricity.

          The game is pretty much over. The q

        • Keith

          Hi Nonrev,

          An update re battery storage, which is doing the same as solar and wind…. 100 fold increase by 2022 (from 2013 figures).. to 40GW/yr (and the only way is up).

          From todays RenewEconomy http://reneweconomy.com.au/2014/can-green-charge-kick-start-energy-storage-leasing-boom-18391

          “According to market research firm IHS, the energy storage market is expected to grow to an annual installation rate of over 40GW by 2022 — from only 0.34 GW in 2012 and 2013. The US is predicted to be the largest market for grid-connected energy storage.”

      • Nonrev

        Keith – Update. The brown coal briquette plant in the Latrobe Valley that supplies Hazelwood and Loy Yang has been mothballed after using up the Federal grant of 50 million dollars. 100 jobs lost. This example of negative GDP has prompted the operators of Hazelwood and Loy Yang to boast that they will import black coal from NSW. However, there is little doubt that tassie hydro will fill most of the gap. Roll on renewables.

      • Rob G

        I knew the shift was big, but not as big as you state here Keith. I hope you’re right. Remember China’s coal power is a bit over 800GW so wind and solar combined will have eaten into nearly half of that by 2020 (note that coal is still increasing in China) that said, it makes for very compelling reading if what you say is true.

        Personally, I think China need to raise the price of power to trigger an even bigger switch – currently the power is cheap and wastage is unbelievable. Their new ETS might just bring that about.

        • Keith

          Hi Rob,

          Re coal still increasing, while it is hard to get clear indications, there is an intention to cap coal use by 2015. Obviously there is huge pushback from the coal industry, but if not 2015, the cap will come soon after and then they will accelerate retirement of coal plants. You can forget Australian coal exports expanding pretty much from now on, so Galilee Basin is a fairy tale even as the Govt tries to make it happen.

          To get a sense of China’s capacity to execute on major projects, look no further than the rail system: 1993 av speed of China rail was 48km/hr. Today they have 11,000 km (more?) of high speed rail and by 2015 it is projected to grow to 18,000km.

          Australia has zero. Turkey has just opened a 533km 250km/hr high speed rail link which was built by the Chinese (with a further 10,000km planned) http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/07/china-builds-first-330-mile-high-speed.html. I predict China will build the Melbourne to Brisbane rail link for a fraction of what our planners are dreaming of…. and it won’t take 20 years.

      • CrankyFranky

        yesterday I read that China is starting to close down coal-fired power plants – towards reducing its cities’ unhealthy air pollution – apparently the number one concern of China’s newly-rich and demanding citizens.

        So – Tony’s plan to sell coal to China for a hundred years – may be heading towards an ignominious end … d’oh !

        oh – and I read a US article saying solar power is already cheaper than coal-fired in the US – and with grid distribution and standby smaller gas-fired plants on-call – the cost of electricity should continue to fall, and be more local – and sustainable – all while Tony head-in-the-sand is waving his bum in the air trying to attract potential suitors – or should I say his friends in business suits – who wants what Tony is offering – anyone ? anyone ?

  • johnnewton

    Abbott and the Fossil fools remind me of the Blakc Knight in The Monty Python film. “It’s just a flesh wound!”

    • CrankyFranky

      this coal-fired parrot is not dead – it’s just resting !

      • karLcx

        take away government subsidies and it just might go away.

  • Hal Little

    Doesn’t the coal industry employ about 50,000 workers in Australia? About half of the 400 million tonnes produced every year is exported, so the employment associated with the coal-fired power industry should include approximately 25,000 miners!