Renewable Energy Careers
Exploring this Job
Volunteering is one way to explore the renewable energy industry. 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 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. Visit the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Web site (https://www.nrel.gov/about/compete.html) for a list of student programs and competitions held throughout the United States, including the Collegiate Wind Competition, Solar Decathlon, and Solar District Cup.
The renewable energy industry can be broken down into the following sub-industries: wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, bioenergy, and fuel cell technology. 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.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, every state in the U.S. has either an operational wind energy project or a wind-related manufacturing facility. Approximately 120,000 people are employed in the wind energy industry. In 2019, wind accounted for 19 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
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.
In 2019, solar energy accounted for 9 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption, according to the EIA. 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. In 2019, hydropower energy made up 22 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption, according to the EIA.
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.
The United States is a world leader in geothermal energy production, yet geothermal energy accounts for a mere 2 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption, according to the EIA. 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 geo-physicists, 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.
Bioenergy is the energy stored in biomass—organic matter such as trees, straw, or corn, which accounted for 43 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption in 2019, according to the EIA. 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. [Note: In the past several years, researchers have found that growing biofuels such as corn in an un-sustainable manner can actually be harmful to the environment. Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, says that the most environmentally friendly biofuels should be made from agricultural waste products (non-edible food products) and from biomass grown on non-agricultural lands.
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.
Fuel Cell Technology
Until recently, all motor vehicles were powered by gasoline and internal combustion engines. While effective and reliable, these systems cause considerable pollution—especially as the number of vehicle owners in the world continues to grow rapidly.
Manufacturers have developed cleaner power options for vehicles such as the electric car, or the gas/electric hybrid. The fuel cell is another option currently in development. A fuel cell is a highly efficient device that generates electricity. According to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, "fuel cells can run on a variety of fuels, including natural gas and hydrogen. Hydrogen is a clean, carbon-free fuel readily available from a variety of sources. When powered by hydrogen, fuel cells emit only water vapor as a byproduct. Fuel cells can run at any time of day and produce nearly zero noise. They are reliable, safe, and never need recharging."
Fuel cell technology workers design, study, modify, and build fuel cell components or provide support to workers who do these tasks. Careers in the field range from technical positions such as engineer and technician to support jobs in sales, human resources, and clerical support.
Non-Technical Careers: All Sectors
Within all sectors of the renewable energy industry, non-technical 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 nontechnical workers who work in this industry.