This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
Henrik Sørensen was 25 years old when a career counselor asked him to describe his dream job to a room full of unemployed engineers. “To work in solar energy on the southern part of Fyn,” Sørensen replied, referring to the Danish island where his father was born.
His response was held up as an example of how not to think about jobs—he was far too specific and inflexible. Sørensen was offended, but he didn’t change his answer.
Nineteen years later, on a crisp August afternoon, he sits sipping cappuccino at an outdoor café overlooking a canal in Århus, Denmark, not terribly far from Fyn. Since the rocky beginning of his career as an energy consultant to architects, he’s completed about 200 solar-design projects. He credits his devotion to his original dream for keeping him from straying down a less satisfying path.
It wasn’t always easy. As a jobless young graduate, he focused on the things that made him feel like an engineer. After his wife left for work each day, he’d get busy checking for openings at the companies he liked. But the months of inactivity wore him down. “After Kirstin went to work in the morning, I managed to read the newspaper,” he recalls. “On good days, I managed also to get dressed. I was completely going to zero.”
It was a paralyzing state for an engineer who’d known he wanted to pursue a career in solar energy since the seventh grade, when he asked for a book on renewable energy for his birthday. “It was hard to read,” he recalls, “but I learned we could melt metal with the rays of the sun—wow!” He grew up with vivid memories of Denmark’s empty, carless roads on Sundays, when gasoline was rationed during the oil crisis of 1973. The idea of harnessing the seemingly boundless potential of solar energy to end such threats of scarcity had a profound effect on him.
At the Technical University of Denmark, in Copenhagen, he studied energy engineering and worked at Risø DTU, Denmark’s national laboratory for sustainable energy, where he analyzed the role of Norwegian hydroelectricity in the Danish grid. Even seemingly unrelated pursuits fed his curiosity about renewable energy. With a 30-day loan and a purchase of 20 kilograms of coffee beans, he and another student opened a café on campus, in a building where introductory lectures were held. It was the perfect place for snagging sleepy customers. Selling their coffee for one krone per cup (about US $0.20), they made approximately $13 000 and spent the surplus on student bus tours to power plants and wind turbines. Then he graduated in 1992, discovered that there were no solar-related jobs, and saw his busy lifestyle come to a sudden halt.
After he’d been unemployed for four months, his wife pushed him to find a hobby. Sørensen left home to attend a sports school in Oure, on the southern end of Fyn. He bought a boat and took up sailing. He relaxed. “I learned, hey, I can spend a whole day doing other things than being an engineer, crunching numbers, or reading funny stuff about solar collectors, and still feel I spent my time in a good way,” he says. The plan was to stay six months, but two weeks later he got his first job offer.