Dismantling the barriers to a renewables-based knowledge economy with IRENA

Whether they're located in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South America or even Europe or the southeastern United States, the cry of those charged with fostering the economic development of their communities is "we need to move to a more knowledge-based economy."
Dismantling the barriers to a renewables-based knowledge economy with IRENA

Nowhere is this more critical than in cities, towns and nations that are grappling with the challenge of evolving toward a post-fossil fuel energy regime.

But if all of these communities share a common desire to grow their use of renewables, they also all confront similar challenges when it comes to creating the seedbed of that future -- a lack of workers skilled in renewable technologies, a paucity of training opportunities for workers desiring to enter the field, and finally, a shortage of teachers and programs to pass on the knowledge these workers need.

Recognizing these issues, IRENA established its Renewable Energy Learning Partnership (IRELP), to serve as a one-stop shop enhancing the accessibility to renewable energy education and training. The initiative aims to dismantle the core barriers to the proliferation of renewables through collaborative effort.

As it says on the IRENA website, many initiatives already exist. The intent of IRELP is to be the platform upon which existing initiatives and high quality resources will be combined to expand their reach to a global scope.    

Renewable Energy Magazine recently spoke with Hugo Lucas, IRENA's Director of Knowledge, Policy and Finance Centre (KPFC), to garner a comprehensive understanding of what IRELP is all about.

Lucas, who also serves as Director of Policy Advisory Services, Capacity Building at IRENA, is a lead author of the chapter on policy, financing and implementation for the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Before joining IRENA, he established the energy and renewables policy for the Spanish Government: the Energy Efficiency Law; the Renewable Energy Law; and the Renewable Energy Plan 2011-2020. Lucas was also very involved in forming European renewable energy policies.

He is an agronomy engineer from the Polytechnic University of Madrid Spain (UPM) and a postgraduate from the Federal Polytechnic University of Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL).

How critical is the shortage of skilled or even adequately trained workers in the global renewables sector?

Calculations that IRENA made with the International Labour Organisation have shown that as many as five million people worked in the renewable energy sector in 2011. This includes those people who are employed in ancillary industries and services. We are currently working on updating this statistic and I am confident that we will see an increase in the number of professionals employed in the renewable energy sector worldwide. The sector is first and foremost in need of engineers and technicians, as they design, install, operate and maintain renewable energy projects.

South Africa, for example, is one country where the shortage of engineers is particularly severe. This case shows that it is critical to market engineering and renewable energies as a career path. In times of globalisation, countries do not only need to build and develop human capacities, but also find ways and mechanisms to retain these.

Inefficient work or failure to properly operate and maintain these systems can affect the profitability of such projects and actually the reputation of renewable energy technologies on the whole. Additionally, difficulties to acquire trained personnel can slow down project development and add to project cost. A shortage of skilled workers thus constitutes a barrier to accelerated deployment of renewable energy.

There are several possible reasons for this shortage but it is clear that educational systems need some time to adapt to the emergence of a new industry. It is the educational institutions, in particular, that we want to support with our IRENA Renewable Energy Learning Partnership, IRELP.

At what point does IRELP get involved in these situations, and more importantly, what is your role?

While renewable energy training courses might still be offered too seldom, we are seeing an increase in the number of educational opportunities offered. The offerings and materials, however, tend to be widely dispersed on the internet and can be difficult to find. IRELP is playing an important role as the one-stop-shop for renewable energy training and education. IRELP currently has over 1000 training courses, college and university programmes, training guides, and educational webinars, many of which are offered free of charge. In addition, IRELP is now the central hub for internship opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

We also know that many providers, including universities, wish to improve or develop courses and programmes as they have been asking us to assist them.  IRELP offers many training guides that are helpful in this regard. For example, IRELP features a host of solar energy education and training best practice guides from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), which provide suggestions for curriculum and programme development and for becoming an effective instructor, as well as examples of exemplary solar education and training programmes on which others can be modelled.

What kinds of training are most critically needed at this point?

The boom in the PV and wind sector has created a huge demand for skilled technicians, particularly to install PV, and maintain and operate wind projects. In addition, recent findings from IRENA suggest that there is a critical need to educate those working for financial institutions. Renewable energy projects have comparatively high upfront cost, and therefore financial institutions are important as they lend the required investment capital. Employees of financial institutes need to be familiar with renewable energy technologies and be able to assess project viability. On that side much remains to be done.

Are there countries or regions where these shortages are most acute?

As mentioned, this is an issue that the renewable energy sector is facing at a global scale, regardless of a country’s level of development. Shortages in trained personnel are likely to be less severe in developed countries as some skills are transferable from other industries to the renewable energy sector, while developing countries, having fewer providers of training and education, are less equipped to respond to emerging skills needs.

I mentioned the case of South Africa earlier, but you can also look to Brazil where the biofuels sector and more specifically large refineries are affected by a shortage of highly skilled personnel. In the Pacific region many of the projects that have been implemented have failed due to limited local capacities.

Still, I want to highlight here, that this is not an issue that is specific to some few countries. If we look at the number of Governments that have committed to renewable energy targets and adopted respective support policies, it is clear that professionals skilled to work in the sector will remain in high demand for the decades to come.  

Are there countries, for instance, where we know the shortage of skilled workers is very definitely the reason renewables haven’t made headway?

Kenya, for example, is a country with a good institutional framework and excellent geothermal resources but with limited capacity to train individuals to operate geothermal facilities. The state-owned Geothermal Development Company, which is responsible for developing 5,000 MWe from geothermal resources by 2030, now stipulates that in order for companies to bid on projects they must include a training component in their offer in order to ensure project sustainability. Recently a Chinese company contracted by the Geothermal Development Company had to subcontract a French institute to conduct these trainings.

The private sector is making an effort through numerous training and career programmes; however, there is still a critical need for better coordination between policy makers promoting the transition to renewable energy and institutions concerned with vocational education and training.

Are there specific entities that you partner with inside a country or region?

IRELP – as its name implies – is based on partnerships. We don’t want to repeat what others are doing already. That’s why we are working with those who can best help us in gathering the information, disseminating it and addressing specific requests. Our partners are private sector stakeholders – we have a range of industry associations on board; education and research institutes; networks, such as REN21 and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, REEEP; regional centres; etc. In the future we intend to expand this network, for example, to include accreditation agencies, which can help to understand the quality of training on offer.

Who is using IRELP?

The platform is still quite young, having only gone online in April of last year. Our user-numbers are increasing constantly and we are very happy to see that our users are spending considerable time on the website, which indicates that they are finding useful information.

We have users from 137 countries and are seeing very high user-numbers from African countries, China and India. China had announced during IRENA’s third Assembly session in January this year that it will join the Agency, so we are also looking into improving our services for the clientele there.

What is currently missing in existing training programmes, what most needs to be fixed?

Besides the need to increase training and education opportunities for the sector, standards need to be developed or, where they exist, be harmonised. Standardised approaches and content may also help in reducing the upfront cost of initiating a new course or programme. Training institutions should prove that their training and assessment schemes have been examined and endorsed by an independent panel. This makes it possible for employers from the sector or in different countries to recognise qualifications. Such assessments would also determine if the contents are designed to meet skills requirements of the industry. 

Of course, change, especially of an educational system and adding classes and the like costs money, who is funding these initiatives?

It depends. If you are looking at university courses or programmes they are mostly working with public budgets and tuition fees. Training courses and postgraduate studies on the other hand are often offered by private providers and it is the participants who fund it through their fees. Other courses are hosted or paid for by the renewable energy industry to equip their workers with the right skills to do their job.

Also the international development community is funding a large number of renewable energy projects involving trainings.

In the developing world, students may have the desire, but lack the resources to study renewables-type sciences, etc. How are countries addressing this issue?

We live in a globalised world. This also includes academia. There are a number of very successful partnerships and cooperation projects among universities. The University of Oldenburg, for example, is cooperating with universities worldwide in the frame of its Post-graduate programme for renewable energies.

We are in contact with universities to understand how we can support them in their endeavours.

And to answer your question related to financial resources students might lack, it is critical that we promote successful examples such as Malaysia. The Malaysian Government had introduced a technical training subsidy for those renewable energy courses that are certified by a National Skills Development Act. In addition, fiscal reliefs were provided for individuals undertaking undergraduate courses in renewable energy with local higher education institutes. These two were part of a package of measures oriented towards providing the skilled professionals for implementation of national renewable energy targets.

Where will we find the teachers to teach these classes?

You are very right to ask this question. Currently, one of the main constraints for employers and providers of renewable energy training and education is the shortage of qualified trainers and educators. One reason is that most renewable energy technologies are comparatively young technologies. For this reason there are still not too many teachers and trainers with the required specialisation.

Exchanges of teaching personnel between universities and training institutes, joint research projects will help to build the required teaching capacity.

Educational initiatives are often part of the economic development process. Is it possible that Economic development groups, chambers of commerce and the like should be brought in as partners of this initiative?

In general, chambers of commerce are supporting training where skill gaps exist. In Germany, for example, there is an industry initiative called the BZEE Global Training Partnership, which delivers wind energy training and has successfully produced over 2600 highly qualified wind energy technicians. Similarly, the Madrid Chamber of Commerce organises face-to-face and online renewable energy tutorials and classes.

What steps can those of us in the renewables sector take tomorrow or next week or next month to help further your efforts?

IRELP is always looking for suggestions for university programmes, training courses, educational webinars, training guides, etc. If you find renewable energy training, please let us know.

If your institution has worked to establish renewable energy courses or worked with others to harmonise, and if you are ready to share these experiences with others, please e-mail us.

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IRENA’s Renewable Energy Learning Partnership (IRELP)

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