Evolving Education for a Renewables-based Economy

Renewables accounted for an estimated 11.5 million jobs worldwide in 2019 and that number is growing thanks to increased investment in renewables. The energy transition is poised to add an estimated 78 million jobs to the market by 2050. However, according to the ILO, these emerging jobs “are conditional on the availability of relevant skills and training.

Over the last ten years, youth interest in combating climate change in their careers has skyrocketed. So, the demand for renewable energy training is coming from the workforce and students. However, there are currently 71 million unemployed youth struggling to find a job. The missing piece is education.

New information and an emerging policy landscape

Renewable energy policy began to emerge in some countries, states, provinces, and cities during the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in a handful of pioneering countries – such as Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the United States. Fortunately, the evolution of renewable energy policy over the past years has developed all over the world: as shown in REN21’s Renewables 2021 Global Status Report, by the end of 2020 nearly all countries had in place renewable energy support policies, although with varying degrees of ambition, up from only 48 countries in 2004.  

Therefore, renewable energy policy can be considered a relatively new and ever-changing field. With such new material, even the most reputable educational institutions are behind in integrating these policies into their curriculum. Therefore, there is both a need to educate young students who will work on those topics, while also already training established professionals for a renewables-based economy.

Aerial view of students in large classroom

Technical skills, but also comprehensive institutional shifts are needed.

On the one hand, there is a need for people to learn the technical skills needed on the supply-side of the energy transition. Some of this training exists already. However, there is also a real need to integrate energy-transition decision making into all economic sectors and fields of work. From accountants to graphic designers, there are fundamental questions related to “business as usual” that must be questioned and new solutions must be applied. Teaching these solutions in business, management, communications and other courses must become common practice, because all fields of study can contribute to making the energy transition happen. In particular this means stronger curricula, more teacher training and more vocational training.

Strategic, comprehensive approaches applied in higher education institutions create more than a future workforce. Integrating renewable energy and sustainable development into the fabric of these institutions and across all fields of study leads to deeper, more systemic change. Highly skilled, marketable and environmentally conscious students are then poised to build demand for greener products and resources in their professional sphere. 

Business women making decisions in a conference room

Government and higher education institutions need to get on board.

What does it look like when education institutions ensure that students have the necessary knowledge and skills to integrate the energy transition into professional decision-making? According to the United Nations Environment Programme, we must create pathways between SDG practitioners, employers in the green economy and education institutions with the following actions: 

  1. Bring a green lens to all professions, 
  2. Increase job placement of students,
  3. Improve quality of curricula to meet career pathway and employer needs, 
  4. Connect students to practitioners for applied projects/research,
  5. And enhance green entrepreneurship. 

The United Nations Environment Programme’s global guidance document that outlines these five actions is designed to help educational institutions understand what changes are needed. 

Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, requires efforts from all sides: countries will need to offer more vocational training; universities must develop stronger, more holistic curricula and robust teacher training; and businesses must build partnerships with universities to update curricula, and drive mentorship and technological innovations from research.

Approaches are already being implemented around the world.  

The Green New Deal in South Korea implements these principles at a national level and is set to create 133,000 new jobs in the next two years in various fields and renewable energy. This plan also includes creating low-carbon energy industrial complexes to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Countless examples of how universities can step into the fullness of their role to prepare the next generation education for renewables-based economy are found in the SEED Center’s College Green Genome Framework which highlights higher education institutions integrating sustainability and clean technology workforce development into their curriculum to prepare all of tomorrow’s leaders to lead sustainably. These are all excellent models for the education-related activities that are essential to achieving a  renewables-based future. 

Hands working to install solar panels

Event: Education for the Energy Transition

30 June 2021: Education for the Energy Transition: Approaches, Resources and Next Steps

Brought to you by REN21, IRENA, the Green Learning Network, and UNEP’s Youth and Education Alliance, this webinar brought together panelists at the forefront of renewable energy education and training to share innovative approaches to skill building.

It was geared toward anyone interested in building capacity for the education for the renewables-based economy we all need. Participants received resources, successful examples, solutions and sharing mechanisms during this interactive session.

All event materials, the video and resources for taking this forward are available on the event page.

Article by Alyssa Harris