Renewable Energy Industry Driving Workforce Innovation

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

September 20, 2022

It was a brief moment in time but a significant milestone in California’s long-range strategy to transition to a 100% clean energy-based economy. In spring 2022, the power demand consumed by the state was comprised of 100% renewable energy. The accomplishment validated the state’s investment in its renewable energy sector and underscored the urgency of developing a workforce capable of building and maintaining that resource.

 

California’s Burgeoning Renewable Energy Sector

For about one hour on April 30th, 2022, the state generated sufficient quantities of renewable electricity to achieve more than 100% of its total consumer demand. California’s renewable energy industry has grown significantly over the past 20 years. Solar power, in particular, was eagerly embraced by millions of individuals and businesses, while the hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear energy sectors continued their expansion. The development and use of these carbon-free energy sources were slowly making inroads into the fossil-fuel-driven energy grid and accounted for 63% of California’s electricity retail sales in 2019.

Increasing the production of renewable energy sources is just one avenue the state is pursuing to reduce its carbon footprint. It is also considering viable alternatives to traditional fossil fuel resources that can act as replacements within systems for those resources. One example is the emergence of renewable propane as a substitute for petroleum-based propane. Renewable propane is chemically identical to petroleum propane, except that it’s not made from fossil fuels. Instead, its chemistry is comprised of vegetable and meat fats and oils that typically end up in landfills. And its ultra-low carbon conversion process facilitates its use as a non-petroleum carbon resource. Tucker Perkins, President and CEO of the Propane Education and Research Council, shared his insights on the significance of the renewable propane industry on the PCC EWD podcast.

California is also deeply invested in using all of its energy resources as efficiently as possible. In 2019, while California ranked second of all the states in total energy consumption, on a per capita basis, its residents consumed less energy over the year than the populations of all other states except Rhode Island.

And it’s building on those successes to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels even more:

In 2021 California produced more electricity from solar, geothermal, and biomass energy resources than any other state.

Also in 2021, the state was 4th in hydroelectric energy production, dropping two places from second due to increased demand and drought.

It is ramping up its investment in wind energy. In summer 2022, the California Energy Commission approved a strategy to develop offshore wind resources capable of serving up to 25 million homes by 2050.

California is also investigating wave energy as a reliable energy resource. Unlike wind and solar resources, wave energy (harnessing tidal movement for power generation) is constant and promises the potential to pick up the slack as a power resource when the sun sets and the wind dies down.

All these efforts contribute to California’s long-term goal of achieving 100% of its energy use through clean energy resources by 2045. They are also driving the growth of economic and workforce development initiatives across the state that are focused on renewable energy.

 

Industrial Efforts Toward a Greener Economy

Of course, transitioning from a petroleum base to a renewable energy base is an industry in itself. Industry experts predict double-digit growth in the renewable energy sector over the next decade to make that change across the state. That growth is achievable if industries can overcome several significant barriers:

Their targets keep changing. Energy demand is rising due in part to climate change. The wildfires, droughts, and floods across the state generated by the changing climate require new energy resources to ensure that people can stay cool, dry, and fed. For example, traditional hydroelectric systems are struggling to meet the electricity demand of numerous industries in the face of extreme drought and low river flows. Regions that rely on hydroelectricity to drive their systems and economy are struggling to continue as their primary energy resource dwindles.

Continued reliance on oil and petroleum will also impede progress in the renewable energy industry. However, recent global conflicts, the COVID-19 pandemic, and supply chain disruptions have demonstrated to the world’s population that such heavy reliance on a single fuel source is ill-advised. The international research firm McKinzey and Company now suggests that demand for petroleum-based fossil fuels will peak between 2024 and 2027, after which time new fuel resources will instead fill those tanks.

The cost to develop alternative fuels that are capable of sustaining a global economy is also daunting. Underwriting those initial capital costs is challenging because of the extended length of time before a company sees a net payback from that expenditure. These financial barriers are formidable.

Not least, it will take time for the global workforce to attain mastery of the emerging technologies capable of facilitating and accelerating the adoption of renewable energy resources.

Most of today’s energy infrastructure was built years or decades ago and is not equipped to incorporate digital processing capabilities.

Many in the current global workforce, including California’s workforce, do not have the technical skills or abilities to step immediately into a newly digitized enterprise.

The technology regulatory sector also lacks comprehensive standards or procedures for renewable energy sources and how to integrate those into the traditional energy grid. In many cases, organizations are reluctant to expend funding on research and development of new resources without that framework in place to guide initiatives and innovations.

 

Despite these barriers, whole industrial sectors, including the renewable resource sector, have begun engaging in a complex and complicated migration process, transitioning from legacy procedures and equipment to digital and technological resources. In doing so, their participants are discovering new occupations, skill sets, and expectations for their labor force. It is those expectations that are driving growth and innovations in the workforce development sector. Combined, these expansions of industry and workforce will lay the foundation for California’s future economy.

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