Renewable Energy, Renewable Jobs

The need for clean and renewable energy ensures a need for EEs

Photo: Pedro Castellano/iStockphoto

The sun is shining for electrical engineers. There should be plenty of engineering jobs in renewable energy to go around in the next few years, industry experts say. And they will be well paying and long lasting.

In July, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors released a report saying that the stimulus package had saved or created over 330 000 clean-energy jobs in the first half of this year. To be sure, those jobs mainly went to electricians, solar photovoltaic installers, wind-turbine technicians, and the like. But engineers, especially electrical and mechanical, will always be in demand at clean-energy companies, says Todd Stewart, project manager for a 440-megawatt concentrated solar photovoltaic project in the Mojave Desert being built by BrightSource Energy, based in Oakland, Calif.

"The renewable industry is on the cusp of doing something really great," Stewart says. "And you can put an EE on a lot more types of tasks. The way the industry is going, when you’re dealing with new companies and start-ups, you need people with a lot of different skills."

Clean-tech research firm Clean Edge came to the same conclusion in a 2009 report, the first of what it expects to be an annual survey of clean-tech jobs: Electrical engineers, with their versatile problem-solving skills, should find good job opportunities. "In general the trend is that we have a shortage of EEs in the United States, and they’re invaluable for any clean-tech company," says Dexter Gauntlett, the firm’s business development and marketing manager.

The Clean Edge survey, which was published last October, found that the top five clean-tech jobs sectors are solar, biofuels and biomaterials, conservation and efficiency, the smart grid, and wind power. An entry-level geothermal power engineer gets a median salary of about US $71 800. The median salary for a midlevel hardware design engineer in the smart-grid industry is $87 700, while a midlevel design engineer in solar PV made $65 000.

There is already a hiring boom in solar energy companies, Gauntlett says. Start-ups in fast-growing areas of active research such as thin-film solar and concentrating solar are creating stable jobs for electrical and electronics engineers. "There’s room for hundreds of engineers on the R&D side, and those jobs are in Europe and the Middle East as well," says BrightSource’s Stewart.

It should also be relatively easy for professional engineers to move into clean tech. Tom Budler, general manager of wind development at MidAmerica Energy Co., in Des Moines, says that many of the company’s wind-site supervisors are electrical or mechanical engineers who made an easy transition from manufacturing and other industries. "That just goes back to the whole engineering mentality," Budler says. "You learn how to solve problems, you come up with a fact set, look at the tool set you have, and then you can solve those problems."

According to the June 2009 Pew Charitable Trusts report "The Clean Energy Economy," the United States, Brazil, the European Union, India, China, and Japan are all pursuing clean-tech job creation. Start-ups abound, whether it’s new solar photovoltaics, smart-grid networking, or electric-car batteries. Corporate giants such as General Electric, Google, and IBM are adding clean tech to their R&D portfolios.

The smart grid alone, which got $11 billion of stimulus money, is expected to create up to 280 000 jobs by 2012, according to a 2009 report by KEMA, a Dutch energy consulting firm. Many of these will be for IT professionals, since the heart of a smart grid is intelligent digital data management to keep track of electricity flowing on the network.

Clean energy has already shown its promise when it comes to good engineering jobs. Gauntlett says that even in the recent market crash, the clean-energy job market for electrical engineers remained stable. "There haven’t been massive layoffs of electrical engineers, because you need to retain their knowledge and skills," he says.

About the Author

Prachi Patel is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum and a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. In a July 2010 article, "Where the Engineering Jobs Are," she noted that employment prospects were notably improved in aerospace, defense, and energy.

To Probe Further

For a ranking of clean tech companies with the most powerful patent portfolios, check Spectrum's first annual CleanTech 50.

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