More than 600 utility professionals say renewable energy will increase moderately to significantly in their service areas over the next decade. The rise is led by large scale renewable projects, the kind that require a whole range of construction services.
Utility Dive, an Industry Dive website focusing on utility news, surveyed utility decision makers and found that over 80% saw a bright future for renewable energy over the next decade. Eighty percent of respondents said they expected utility-scale solar to have moderate-to-significant growth, with distributed generation (83%) and wind (72%) rounding out the top three. More telling was that utility professionals are now less concerned about integrating renewables into the power generation mix, signaling new confidence in renewables generating larger shares of energy at scale.
Let’s Get Efficient
Energy efficiency efforts by themselves create a considerable amount of construction projects every year. From retrofits to incorporating energy efficient aspects in new buildings, now that owners have gotten a taste for energy savings, there’s little that will stand in the way of growth in these types of investments.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimated in 2010 there were 830,000 jobs related to energy efficiency and pegged it with 3% annual growth. The U.S. Green Building Council has predicted that green buildings would support 3.3 million jobs by 2018, or about half of the 6.5 million total construction workforce. And it looks like that could come to pass as a U.S. Department of Energy report in 2016 said 21% of the construction workforce was supporting the construction and installation of energy efficient technologies.
There’s More to This Sector Than You Know
Then there are the projects directly related to building and maintaining renewable energy projects like windmills, geothermal, and solar. Nationally, wind energy had created 73,000 full time equivalent jobs by the end of 2014, and Texas, the leading wind energy state was employing 17,000 people in the sector in 2015.
Solar created almost 174,000 jobs by the end of 2014, but if you factor in construction jobs and other indirect jobs the number goes above 705,000. In 2016 the number of people working on solar increased 25% and wind employment went up 32%, according to a DOE report.
What makes the renewables footprint so promising for construction is the sheer variety of projects. Besides solar and wind there are biogas, biomass, fuel cell, geothermal, hydro, renewable fuels, waste-to-energy, and ocean power.
Busy Newcomers Include Distributed and Stored
There is also the aspect of distributed generation. That’s all the places where energy is generated on site. That could be a homeowner with solar panels or a business with a windmill. With financing mechanisms and some incentives, these installations are increasing in number and size.
Another growing alternative energy aspect is energy storage. One example, compressed-air energy storage seeks to find new uses for the closing coal power plants. A recent count put the number of closed coal power plants at 135. Coal power has gradually given way to less expensive and cleaner natural gas. CAES acts like a battery, storing compressed air and then driving turbines with it as needed. There are many different approaches to energy storage and all require the services of construction.
Construction’s Age-old Connections
These energy generation and storage technologies rely on traditional construction techniques to build them. Skills in concrete, metal, glass, wood, and trade specialties like electrical and mechanical are all integral to getting these systems up and running. Then, there are the maintenance aspects that create longer term jobs for years.
Do Renewables Get the Respect They Deserve?
While concerns about integrating renewables were half what they were in last year’s Utility Dive survey, the uncertainty posed by the new administration in Washington is the most pressing concern. One thing that stifles renewables is public policy that blocks, lowers, or removes the incentive to develop renewables. The U.S. government has used incentives in the energy industry since at least 1789 when the nation imposed tariffs on British coal. And, while the government heavily subsidized the coal, oil, gas, and nuclear industries in their early years of development, the same zeal has not been forthcoming for renewables.
According to authors of, “What Would Jefferson Do? The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America’s Energy Future,” the backing renewables have received is “trivial” in comparison to other energy sources. The main incentives provided to renewables have been tax credits, but they have been inconsistently allowed, leaving developers of renewables to face greater uncertainties than those in other energy sectors.
Options and Opportunities
Regardless, renewables appear to be forging ahead and industry watchers expect it to continue posting market gains despite the headwinds. So, where are the greatest opportunities?
Think solar, distributed generation, energy storage, and wind. A key aspect of all of these is the task of integrating them with the existing grid. Look for opportunities to install demand response and demand side management infrastructure, shared community renewables, and grid communication technology. For renewable installations, the greatest demand will be rooftop solar, wind, geothermal, and units that combine heat and power.
Every region in the U.S. is expected to benefit from new renewable efforts with some exceptions. For example, more than half the Utility Dive survey respondents in the Southeast don’t expect wind power to grow there. New turbine technologies, however, promise to make wind power prices to the consumer competitive with natural gas. That could change the dynamic in the south.
Places to expect strong advances in renewables include the Rocky Mountains and Plains states, followed by the Northeast. And, there is higher confidence in the growth of utility-scale solar going forward because wind has advanced so quickly, and the wind incentives are declining.
Now that prices, integration, and other obstacles are lifting, the utility sector is seeing renewables in the light of innovation and improved profits. That’s shaping up to create new opportunities for construction as well.