Renewable Energy Engineers
Nearly 1.8 million engineers are employed in the United States. 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 nonprofit 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 regions of the United States are windier than others. For this reason, wind-related projects tend to be most concentrated in the western states of California and Texas, other western states such as Colorado and Oklahoma, the Pacific Northwest (especially Oregon), and the Midwest (especially Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota), and the Mid-Atlantic. Approximately 120,000 people are employed in the wind energy industry, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
There are a wide variety of employment opportunities available in the solar energy industry. 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, although solar energy development has increased in other areas of the United States. As of 2019, nearly 344,532 people spent at least some portion of their work time on solar-related projects, according to The Solar Foundation. The foundation reports that the top five states for solar jobs are (in descending order): California, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas. Manufacturers of solar power components and equipment are located throughout the United States. Large plants are located in California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Currently, most geothermal employment opportunities in the United States exist where most geothermal reservoirs are located—in the western states. These include Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. However, since magma is located everywhere under the Earth's surface, better technology and more powerful tools enable geothermal-related projects to be found throughout the United States. Workers are also employed by construction subcontractors and suppliers of power and cooling systems components. In 2019, approximately 8,794 jobs existed in the geothermal energy sector, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report from the Energy Futures Initiative and the National Association of State Energy Officials. This reflected an increase of 268 jobs over the previous year.
Geothermal energy workers are employed by government agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service that review and approve licensing requests from geothermal energy contractors. They also conduct geothermal energy research for the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of the Interior (National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey), and other agencies. Developers of geothermal energy resources are major employers of workers in the field. Workers are also employed by construction subcontractors and suppliers of power and cooling systems components.
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. According to the National Hydropower Association, hydropower facilities existed in 48 states during early 2020s.
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. Opportunities for bioenergy and biofuels workers are available throughout the United States, although certain areas of the country may offer better opportunities than others. For example, the majority of ethanol production takes place in the Midwest. The top states for ethanol production are Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and South Dakota.
Employers of fuel cell technology workers include automotive manufacturers with hydrogen vehicle programs, companies that manufacture fuel cells and related technology, merchant hydrogen producers, colleges and universities that conduct fuel cell and hydrogen research, and government agencies that conduct research in the field (most significantly, the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Laboratories, and the U.S. Department of Defense Fuel Cell Test and Evaluation Center.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, approximately 180,000 new jobs were expected to be created in the fuel cells industry by 2020. By 2035, this figure was projected to reach 675,000. "As various fuel cell applications gain market share, the industry is expected to undergo significant growth," the DOE explains. "Employment opportunities will open up in businesses that develop, manufacture, operate, and maintain the fuel cell systems. Jobs will also become available in businesses that produce and deliver the hydrogen and other fuels used by these systems. Many of these jobs require engineering and science backgrounds related to product and technology development."
Industry and professional 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, and 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.
Internships are also a great way to get relevant work experience, not to mention valuable contacts. Many of the larger energy companies and nonprofit groups, as well as government employers, offer internships (either with pay or for course credit) to junior- or senior-level college students. For example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory offers both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to participate in its many research and development programs.
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, engineering manager or 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. Some teach engineering at colleges and universities or work as consultants.
Tips for Entry
To learn more about the field, read industry publications, such as:
- Windpower Monthly (https://www.windpowermonthly.com)
- Solar Industry (https://www.solarindustrymag.com)
- Solar Today (https://www.ases.org/solartoday/)
- International Journal on Hydropower and Dams (https://www.hydropower-dams.com)
- Geothermal Resources Council Bulletin (https://geothermal.org/bulletin.html)
- Biofuels Digest (https://biofuelsdigest.com)
- Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Connection (http://www.fchea.org)
Visit the following Web sites for job listings:
Participate in internships or part-time jobs that are arranged by your college’s career services office. Visit https://www.energy.gov/eere/education/clean-energy-jobs-and-planning for information on internships, fellowships, and scholarships.
Join professional associations to access training and networking resources, industry publications, and employment opportunities.
Visit https://www.energy.gov/eere/education/explore-clean-energy-careers-0 for comprehensive information on careers in renewable energy.