Renewable energy is defined as a clean and unlimited source of power or fuel. This energy is harnessed from different sources such as wind, sunlight (solar), water (hydro), organic matter (biomass), and the earth’s internal heat (geothermal). Unlike non-renewable energy sources like oil, natural gas, or coal, or nuclear energy, renewable energy is not based on extracting a limited resource.
The renewable energy industry is actually a vast group of sub-industries that offer employment opportunities for people with many different educational backgrounds. Engineers, scientists, architects, farmers, technicians, operators, mechanics, lawyers, businesspeople, sales workers, human resource and public affairs specialists, as well as a host of administrative support workers make their living by researching, developing, installing, and promoting renewable energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), based in Colorado, had estimated the renewable energy industries will provide at least 300,000 new jobs for American workers in the next two decades.
History of Renewable Energy Careers
Renewable energy resources have been used for centuries. Windmills have long been used to grind grain or pump water. The sun has always been used as a source of heat. In 1839, Edmund Bequerel, an early pioneer in solar energy, discovered the photoelectric effect—the production of electricity from sunlight. The power of water that is stored and released from dams has been used for generating electricity. This type of electricity is known as hydropower electricity. Hot springs and underground reservoirs, products of geothermal energy, have long been used as sources of heat. People have burned trees or other organic matter, known as biomass, for warmth or cooking purposes.
However, the early technology of harnessing and producing renewable energy as a source of power or fuel was underdeveloped and expensive. Because of this, the majority of our power needs have been met using nonrenewable resources such as natural gas or fossil fuels. Our use of fossil fuels has caused our nation to rely heavily on foreign sources to meet demand. Our declining national supply of nonrenewable natural resources, coupled by public awareness of the soaring costs and environmental damage caused by the mining, processing, and use of conventional energy sources, have shed new light on renewable energy sources as a viable solution to our energy needs.
Today, “green” sources of power have earned respect as an important alternative to nonrenewable resources. New research and technology in the past 25 years have enabled self-renewing resources to be harnessed more efficiently and at a lower cost than in the past. Deregulation and a restructuring of the conventional power industries by the Energy Policy Act of 1992 have presented the public with more choices. Tax incentives at the state and federal level make buying green power more affordable to consumers and for the utility companies. Renewable energy sources are used to produce approximately 2 percent of all electricity in the United States, according to the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG).
The Jobs in Renewable Energy Industry
The renewable energy industry can be broken down into the following sub-industries: wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, and bioenergy. A wide variety of career options are available to workers with a high school diploma to advanced degrees. Additionally, many career skills are transferable from one sub-industry to another.
Wind energy has been the fastest growing energy technology in the world for the past three years, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). According to the AWEA, the U.S. wind industry employs over 2,000 people who contribute directly to the economies of 46 states.
The wind turbine is the modern, high-tech equivalent of yesterday’s windmill. A single wind turbine can harness the wind’s energy to generate enough electricity to power a house or small farm. Wind plants, also called wind farms, are a collection of high-powered turbines that can generate electricity for tens of thousands of homes. In order to achieve this capacity, a variety of technical workers are employed in the wind power industry. Electrical, mechanical, and aeronautical engineers design and test the turbines as well as the wind farms. Meteorologists help to identify prime locations for new project sites, and may serve as consultants throughout the duration of a project. Skilled construction workers build the farms; windsmiths, sometimes called mechanical or electrical technicians, operate and maintain the turbines and other equipment on the farm.
Solar energy is responsible for 1 percent of electricity generated by non-hydro renewable energy and .02 percent of the total U.S. electricity, according to the NEPDG. Its potential as a major energy source is largely untapped.
There are different ways to turn the sun’s energy into a useful power source. The most common technology today uses photovoltaic (PV) cells. When a PV cell is directly struck by sunlight, the materials inside it absorb this light. Simply put, the activity of absorption frees electrons, which then travel through a circuit. Electrons traveling through a circuit produce electricity. Many PV cells can be linked together to produce unlimited amounts of electricity.
The Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technologies use mirrors to focus sunlight onto a receiver. The receiver collects sunlight as heat, which can be used directly, or generated into electricity. The three CSP methods used are parabolic troughs, power towers, and parabolic dishes. Parabolic troughs can produce solar electricity inexpensively compared to the other methods, and can generate enough power for large-scale projects. Power towers can also generate power for large-scale projects, while parabolic dishes are used for smaller scale projects. Using solar collectors and storage tanks, the sun’s energy can be used to heat water for swimming pools or buildings. Many schools, hospitals, prisons, and government facilities use solar technology for their water use. A building’s design or construction materials can also utilize the sun’s energy for its heating and light through passive solar design, water heating, or with electrical PV cells.
Skilled workers are needed for all aspects of solar technology. Electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineers work in research and development departments. Architects, many of whom specialize in passive solar design and construction, design solar-powered structures. Technicians, electricians, installers, and construction workers build and maintain solar projects.
Hydropower is the largest and least expensive type of renewable energy in the United States. Hydropower energy is the fourth largest source of electricity generated in the United States; about 7 percent of total electricity generated in 2000, according to the NEPDG.
Hydropower uses the energy of flowing water to produce electricity. Water is retained in a dam or reservoir. When the water is released, it passes through and spins a turbine. The movement of the turbine in turn spins generators, which produces electricity. In “run of the river” projects, dams are not needed. Canals or pipes divert river water to spin turbines.
Electrical and mechanical engineers and technicians design, construct, and maintain hydropower projects. Biologists and other environmental scientists assess the effects of hydropower projects on wildlife and the environment. Fish farmers develop fish screens and ladders and other migration-assisting devices. Recreation managers and trail planners manage and preserve the land surrounding the reservoir or dam.
Geothermal energy accounts for 17 percent of electricity generated from non-hydro renewable energy, and .03 percent of U.S. totals, according to the NEPDG. Geothermal heat comes from the heat within the earth. Water heated from geothermal energy is tapped from its underground reservoirs and used to heat buildings, grow crops, or melt snow. This direct use of geothermal energy can also be used to generate electricity.
Most water and steam reservoirs are located in the western United States. However, dry rock drilling, a process that drills deeper into the earth’s magma, is an innovation that will eventually allow geothermal projects to be undertaken almost anywhere.
Employment opportunities in the geothermal industry are excellent for geologists, geochemists, and geophysicists, who are needed to research and locate new reservoirs. Hydraulic engineers, reservoir engineers, and drillers work together to reach and maintain the reservoir’s heat supply.
The building of new geothermal projects requires the work of electricians, welders, mechanics, and construction workers. Drilling workers, machinists, and mechanics also are needed to keep the drilling equipment in good order. Environmental scientists, chemists, and other scientists are needed to research and develop new technology to reach other geothermal sources of energy.
According to the NEPDG, bioenergy accounts for 76 percent of electricity generated by non-hydro renewable energy, and 1.6 percent of total U.S. electricity.
Bioenergy is the energy stored in biomass—organic matter such as trees, straw, or corn. Bioenergy is the second largest source of renewable energy. Bioenergy can be used directly, as is the case when we burn wood for cooking or heating purposes. Indirect uses include the production of electricity using wood waste or other biomass waste as a source of power. Another important biomass byproduct is ethanol, which is converted from corn.
Chemists, biochemists, biologists, and agricultural scientists work together to find faster and less costly ways to produce bioenergy. Engineers, construction workers, electricians, and technicians build and maintain bioenergy conversion plants. Farmers and foresters raise and harvest crops or other sources of biomass. Truck drivers transport crops to the conversion plants.
Within all sectors of the renewable energy industry, nontechnical workers are also needed to perform clerical duties, manage workers, sell, market, and advertise products, maintain records, and educate the public. Sales and marketing professionals, advertising workers, secretaries, receptionists, customer service representatives, media relations specialists, personnel and human resources specialists, accountants, information technology workers, and educators are just some of the types of non-technical workers who work in this industry.
Renewable Energy Career Requirements
For many jobs in the renewable energy industry, it pays to have a strong background in science and mathematics. For example, earth science, agriculture, and biology classes will be useful if you plan to work in the hydropower industry researching the effects of a new hydropower project on the surrounding vegetation and animal life. Mathematics, earth science, and chemistry classes will be helpful if you plan to work in the geothermal energy industry identifying and harvesting possible sources of geothermal energy from within the earth. Physics classes will be helpful if you plan to work in the wind industry designing windmills and turbine engines to capture and convert wind energy into electricity, or “green” buildings and homes of the future.
However, you need not be technically gifted in science and math in order to succeed in the renewable energy industry. Computer classes are useful for workers who run design programs, organize research, and maintain basic office records. Finance, accounting, communications, and English classes will be helpful to anyone who is interested in working in the business end of the industry. Taking a foreign language is highly useful since a majority of renewable energy companies are located abroad.
Most technical jobs in this industry require at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Courses of study range from environmental science and mathematics to architecture and meteorology. Many people who are employed in the research and development or technical departments of their respective renewable sub-industry have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in electrical, chemical, or mechanical engineering. Some scientists have graduate degrees in engineering or the sciences (such as biology, physics, or chemistry).
San Juan College (http://www.sanjuancollege.edu/), located in Farmington, New Mexico, is one of the few colleges in the United States that offers a course of study in renewable energy. An associate’s degree or one-year certificate is available with emphasis in photovoltaic applications, as well as a focus on wind, hydro, and fuel cell applications.
Four-year degrees in liberal arts, business, or other professional degrees are not required, but are recommended for many non-technical jobs. For example, a community affairs representative or public relations specialist should have a communications or journalism background.
Certification or Licensing
The Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) offers certification in a variety of specialties. To be considered for certification, a candidate must meet eligibility standards such as a minimum of three years relevant work experience and membership in a professional organization. Most programs consist of classroom work and examination. One of the most popular certifications is the certified engineering manager (CEM) designation. Many larger utility companies look for the CEM designation when hiring new employees. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by the AEE, over 51 percent of respondents held a CEM or other designation.
Certification and licensing requirements for other jobs in the renewable industry will vary according to the position. Solar panel installers must be certified in order to work on most projects, especially government contracts. Different associations offer certification needs and continuing education training. For example, the Midwest Energy Association offers certification for those working with photovoltaics.
Contractors in the solar industry must apply for certification to ensure their structures are sound and to industry standards. Check the industry trade associations for specifics on project certification.
Most states require engineers to be licensed. There are two levels of licensing for engineers. Professional engineers (PEs) have graduated from an accredited engineering curriculum, have four years of engineering experience, and have passed a written exam. Engineering graduates need not wait until they have four years experience, however, to start the licensure process. Those who pass the Fundamentals of Engineering examination after graduating are called engineers in training (EIT) or engineer interns (EI). The EIT certification usually is valid for 10 years. After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second examination, the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, to gain full PE licensure.
Electricians may require licensure depending on the requirements of their job, as well as the industry sector for which they are employed. All states and the District of Columbia require that architects be licensed before contracting to provide architectural services in that particular state. Though many work in the field without licensure, only licensed architects are required to take legal responsibility for all work.
Truck drivers must meet federal requirements and any requirements established by the state where they are based. All drivers must obtain a state commercial driver’s license. Truck drivers involved in interstate commerce must meet requirements of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It’s not absolutely necessary to be a technical genius to do well in this industry. “Much of the technical side can be, and is, taught while on the job,” says Katy Mattai, director of a regional energy association. “However, it is important to have an interest in environmental issues. If you don’t care about saving our environment, or conserving natural resources, maybe you should reconsider this career choice.”
Teamwork is important within all sectors of renewable energy. The ability to work with large groups of people, with varying backgrounds and technical knowledge, is a must.
Exploring Renewable Energy Careers
Volunteering is one way to explore the renewable energy industry. Katy Mattai discovered this industry after volunteering at a local energy fair. You can find energy fairs or conventions in your area by contacting energy associations. Your duties may consist of handing out brochures or other simple tasks, but you will have the opportunity to learn about the industry and make contacts.
Many professional associations have student chapters or junior clubs. The National Society of Professional Engineers, for example, has local student chapters specifically designed to help high school and college students learn more about careers in engineering. In addition to providing information about different engineering disciplines, student chapters promote contests, and offer information on scholarships and internships.
Industry associations also hold many competitions designed to promote their particular renewable energy sector. You can log on to NREL’s Web site (http://www.nrel.gov/) for a list of student programs and competitions held throughout the United States. One such contest is the Junior Solar Sprint held in Colorado for junior high school students. The contest calls for the construction and racing of solar-powered cars. Contestants learn about renewable energy technologies and concepts in a fun, challenging, and exciting setting.
The renewable energy industry is a large and diverse field. Employment opportunities in each sector exist at manufacturing or research and development companies, both large and small; utilities; government organizations; and non-profit groups and agencies. Research or education opportunities can be found at universities or trade associations. Because the benefits of renewable energy are a global concern, many employment opportunities can be found outside of the United States.
It is important to note that while employment in the renewable energy industry can be found nationwide, some sectors of the industry tend to be clustered in specific regions of the United States. A good example of this is the wind power industry. Although wind is everywhere, different sections of the United States are windier than other areas. For this reason, wind-related projects tend to be most concentrated in the states of California and Texas, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest (especially Iowa and Minnesota), and the Mid-Atlantic.
There are a wide variety of employment opportunities in solar energy. Contractors, dealers, distributors, builders, utilities, government agencies, manufacturers, installers, and research and development companies can be found throughout the United States. The Southwest has the greatest potential for solar energy. The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade organization that supports companies with an interest in solar use, has chapters in 22 states and over 500 business-members located nationwide.
Currently, most geothermal employment opportunities in the United States exist where most geothermal reservoirs are located—in the western states, Alaska, and Hawaii. However, since magma is located everywhere under the Earth’s surface, better technology and more powerful tools may enable geothermal-related projects to be found throughout the United States.
Hydropower plants are found throughout the United States. Hydropower projects can be separated into two categories: large hydropower projects run by the federal electric utilities and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, and nonfederal hydropower dams—about 2,600—licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. States that rely heavily on hydropower generation of electricity include Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Maine, South Dakota, California, Montana, and New York.
Biomass is bulky and thus costly to transport. Because of this, bioenergy projects are located where biomass crops are grown. This is a great benefit for many rural areas of the United States since jobs and their economic benefits are kept close to home.
Industry associations are a rich source of information, especially when you are looking for your first job. Association Web sites feature the latest industry news, project developments, market forecasts, and government policies. Professional associations, such as the AEE, also offer career advice and job postings on their Web sites.
Many companies recruit on campus or at job fairs. Check with your school’s career center for upcoming fairs in your area. Other good job hunting resources are trade journals, some of which may have job advertisements in their classifieds sections. Check out notable renewable energy sites, such as American Wind Energy Association (http://www.awea.org/).
Internships are also great way to get relevant work experience, not to mention valuable contacts. Many of the larger energy companies and nonprofit groups offer internships (either with pay or for course credit) to junior or senior level college students. For example, NREL offers both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to participate in its many research and development programs.
Typical advancement paths depend on the type of position. For example, solar panel installers may advance to positions of higher responsibility such as managing other workers. With experience, they may opt to start their own business specializing in panel installation and maintenance. Engineers may start with a position at a small company with local interests and advance to a position of higher responsibility within that same company, for example, director of research and development. Or they may move on to a larger more diverse company such as a public utility, whose interests may cover a broader area.
A non-technical employee with a background in communications, for example, may advance from the human resource department of a windmill turbine manufacturing company to handle media and communication requests for a state’s energy program. With the proper expertise and credentials, he or she may advance to direct a nonprofit organization representing a sector of the renewable energy industry.
Very little salary information is available for specific jobs in each sub-industry. However, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median salary for an electrical engineer was $71,610, as of 2004.
Annual salaries for non-technical workers vary according to the position, type and size of the employer, and job responsibilities. A typical administrative position would probably pay salaries ranging from $20,000 to $50,000. Those employed by nonprofit organizations tend to earn slightly less than their corporate counterparts. Most employees receive a standard benefits package including medical insurance, paid vacation and sick days, and a retirement savings program.
Work environment will vary depending on the industry and the type of position a worker holds. For example, meteorologists in the wind industry may need to travel to distant sites in order to better gauge wind capabilities for a proposed wind turbine project. Solar industry technicians often travel from site to site in order to install or maintain equipment needed for solar projects such as homes, buildings, or thermal generators. Hydropower industry employees may perform much of their work outdoors. Biologists and fisheries managers will work at or near ponds and rivers. Recreation managers may often find themselves developing outdoor walking paths and trails near hydroelectric projects to ensure that vegetation and wildlife are protected. In the geothermal industry, drilling crews work outdoors when they operate heavy drilling tools to locate new reservoirs. Farmers employed by bioenergy companies work outdoors tending their biomass crops. All workers who work outdoors must deal with occasionally extreme weather conditions such as high wind, rain, sleet, snow, and temperature extremes.
Administrative support staff, industry educators, research and development workers, sales and marketing staff, and other non-technical workers often work indoors in comfortable offices. Many scientists work in laboratories, which are clean, comfortable, and well-lit. Most employees work a standard 40-hour week. Important projects or deadlines may require overtime and weekend work.
Renewable Energy Careers Outlook
According to a 2001 National Energy Policy report released by the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), energy use in the United States increased by 17 percent between 1991 and 2000. However, our energy production increased by a marginal 2.3 percent. Consumption of oil in the United States is projected to increase by 33 percent or more by 2020. Presently, we depend on foreign sources for two out of every three barrels of oil. Natural gas consumption is projected to grow by 50 percent, yet production in the U.S. will only grow by 14 percent. There is enough coal in the U.S. to last another 250 years, though that too is limited. Electricity consumption continues to increase faster than conventional methods can produce it, leaving many people and businesses at the mercy of brown outs or black outs. Political instability in foreign suppliers, increasing costs, and an overreliance on fossil fuels have prompted many to reconsider the potential of renewable energy as a source for unlimited power and fuel.
The wind industry is the fastest growing sector of the renewable energy industry. The greatest factor in this growth can be attributed to lower production costs. Better technology and equipment have lowered the cost of wind-generated electricity by about 80 percent in the past 20 years; this almost matches the cost of electricity generated by conventional methods such as coal or nuclear. Though much of this growth in renewable energy sources is occurring in European countries, it is also evident in the United States. In fact, in the past few years the United States has doubled its wind capacity. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that the wind energy industry will triple or even quadruple in the next decade. This is good news for windsmiths, engineers, meteorologists, electricians, and other technical workers.
Solar energy use is already well established in high value markets such as remote power, satellites, and communications. Industry experts are working to improve current technology and lower costs to bring solar generated electricity, hot water systems, and solar optimized buildings to the public. The manufacturing of PV cell systems also presents many employment opportunities. According to NREL, 67 percent of all PV cell systems are manufactured in the United States. 70 percent of PV cells manufactured in the U.S. are exported to other nations, resulting in $300 million in sales every year.
Hydropower is an important renewable energy resource because of its abundance and ability to produce electricity inexpensively without harmful emissions. However, some dams and other water reservoirs have been found to harm fish and wildlife located in or near the project site. The industry has responded to such claims by hiring specialists to protect vegetation and wildlife affected by hydropower projects. Two factors may limit growth in the hydropower industry. First, most potential sites for hydropower projects have already been utilized. Second, the licensing process for hydropower projects is slow and inefficient. License requests must be reviewed and approved by federal and state agencies, which often have a conflict in goals and regulations, making it difficult to obtain a license.
Improved technological advances, such as more powerful drilling tools, have helped the geothermal energy industry grow. Since 1973, geothermal plants have increased capacity by almost 600 percent. Employment opportunities are greatest in the West for the direct use, or drilling, of geothermal energy, and in the Midwest for geothermal heat pumps. However, with advances in technology, employment opportunities will be plentiful throughout the United States. Long delays in obtaining geothermal land leases from the government could hinder the growth of this industry.
Bioenergy is also experiencing steady growth. Interest in bioenergy will not only stem from its electricity potential, but also the biofuels converted from biomass such as ethanol and biodiesel. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 17,000 jobs are created for every million gallons of ethanol, an important biomass byproduct, produced. Employment opportunities will exist for chemists, engineers, and other agricultural scientists.
Public interest in renewable energy has grown in the last decade. Research has brought better technology, lowered generating costs, and even developed other uses for renewable energy. However, there are still many barriers that hinder this industry’s growth potential: lack of infrastructure to transport renewable energy reliably, competition for local distribution, and lack of government funding for additional research and projects.