Renewable Energy Jobs: Careers That Make a Difference in the World
Renewable energy jobs are a hot topic in today's world. As the nation's focus shifts from fossil fuels to green technology, a growing number of people are wondering how to get into the renewable energy industry. And you may be one of them. The reality is that many paths can lead to clean energy jobs.
Many people start out by attending a renewable energy school. These schools typically offer programs that can start preparing you for specific technical and scientific careers. But many people don't consider all of the other types of professionals that are needed within the renewable energy sector. These include business, information technology, and skilled trades professionals. It may surprise you to discover all of the areas in which you could find opportunities for green energy careers. Careers in renewable energy typically fall into one of five categories:
- Renewable energy
- Energy efficiency
- Pollution reduction/greenhouse gas reduction/recycling and reuse
- Natural resource conservation
- Environmental compliance/education and training/public awareness
The renewable energy industry consists of several sub-sectors in which jobs can be found. Some of these sectors are established and growing strong, whereas others are just emerging and focus heavily on research and development. These are the key areas that make up the renewable energy market:
In 2014, it was estimated that 3.8 million jobs existed within the renewable energy sector. This represents a 13-percent increase from the previous year. And just take a look at these other promising job facts:1
- By 2018, green building construction could support more than 3.3 million jobs.
- In 2013 alone, 8,765 new jobs were created in the smart grid/transmission sector.
- In 2014, 9,020 new jobs were added to the electric- and hybrid-vehicle manufacturing and vehicle fuel-efficiency manufacturing sectors.
For those interested in renewable energy jobs, many people would say that now is the time to act on that interest. There are growing opportunities available in many sectors and within professional areas that you may not have considered until now. So keep reading to better understand why the country is emphasizing renewable energy, and uncover the areas in which you might want to focus your green job search efforts!
Fossil Fuels and the Energy Sector
From growing our food to heating our homes to commuting to and from work, we live in a world that relies on energy. Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, which includes coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Fossil fuels have helped the modern world become what it is today, and fossil fuel industries have supported the economy remarkably. But the sustainability of the ongoing and growing use of fossil fuels has been coming into question in recent years.
One concern is that fossil fuels are not renewable. Once they run out, they are gone. As of 2014, scientists estimate that fossil-fuel reserves could be depleted within the next 50 to 120 years.2 Additionally, the U.S. does not have enough fossil fuels to meet the country's energy needs. This means that up to almost 60 percent of the nation's oil is imported.2 The concern here is that supply and pricing issues arise when there are political and social conflicts involving oil-exporting nations. And this has the potential to lead to an energy crisis within the U.S.
Finally, the use of fossil fuels also affects the environment. Burning fossil fuels releases gases, like carbon dioxide, which leads to increased pollution and may even be contributing to climate change. So it's easy to see why a growing importance, and even urgency, has been placed on the need to develop clean, renewable energy sources and start replacing society's dependence on fossil fuels.
Renewable Energy Development
What exactly is the renewable energy sector? What industries does it include? Well, renewable energy is defined as any energy that is naturally renewed. It is infinite; it does not run out. Renewable energy is also clean. Its use results in virtually no emissions or associated pollution. And as an added benefit, renewable energy can also be solely produced within the country. This creates self-sufficiency so that the country's energy needs don't have to be met through imports from other nations. The sector consists of any renewable energy company or organization that is committed to the research, development, advancement, and implementation of clean technologies and fuels.
The key industries that offer the most jobs in renewable energy are the solar, wind, geothermal, marine, bioenergy, and hydrogen and fuel cell sectors. Although these industries offer huge potential, making the change from fossil fuels to renewable energy has both financial and time implications. This is why the government has been creating initiatives to support research and development, enacting legislation to encourage and even require changes, and offering incentives and tax credits to individuals and businesses for doing so.
This move toward renewable energy means that many new green energy jobs are emerging. And the government has created the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to help lead the way.
NREL: National Renewable Energy Laboratory
The NREL is the only federally funded laboratory that is exclusively committed to the development of renewable energy. It focuses on the research, development, commercialization, and implementation of renewable energy products and technologies. As of 2016, the NREL has:3
- Three national centers—The National Bioenergy Center, National Center for Photovoltaics, and National Wind Technology Center
- Three collaborative research facilities—An energy systems integration facility, a process development and integration laboratory, and an integrated biorefinery research facility
- 13 research programs that cover areas like bioenergy, geothermal energy, hydrogen and fuel cells, solar energy, transportation, and wind energy
- Over 800 technologies for licensing
- Approximately $360 million in funding (based on the 2014 fiscal year)
As a result, the NREL itself has become an excellent source of alternative energy jobs. In fact, it employs more than 1,500 people. Along with competitive salaries, NREL employees often enjoy excellent benefits packages that can include:
- Dental, medical, and vision coverage
- Life insurance plans
- Retirement savings plans
- Paid holiday, personal, and sick time
- Counseling services
- Tuition reimbursement programs
- On-site wellness activities
Along with engineers and scientists, the NREL recruits IT and business professionals. So for people interested in pursuing renewable energy careers, the NREL could offer interesting possibilities, regardless of your background. And if you are a college student, you may qualify for one of the laboratory's renewable energy internships. But keep in mind that the NREL is just one possibility out of many. Sustainable energy jobs can also be found within the sectors discussed below.
Solar Energy Jobs
Solar electricity is produced from the sun's solar radiation. In simple terms, photovoltaic (PV) cells capture solar radiation and, from that, generate electricity. There are also solar heating and cooling technologies that capture the sun's thermal energy. And there are concentrating solar power (CSP) plants that use mirrors to concentrate the sun's thermal energy. These three systems are referred to as active solar systems because they use electrical and mechanical devices in order to generate energy. However, there are also passive solar buildings that collect, store, and distribute the sun's energy. The energy is used to control the inside temperature of the building, but the process does not involve any moving parts or electronics.
Solar energy is renewable and emission-free. In fact, the average residential solar system offsets approximately 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the course of 20 years.4 And once set up, the required annual maintenance is quite minimal. So it isn't surprising that 2015 was the solar energy sector's biggest year yet. The year ended with enough installed capacity to power 5.4 million homes. Solar energy accounted for almost 30 percent of new electricity-generating capacity installed in the U.S. in 2015, which is the first time that solar has ever exceeded natural gas additions. Yet, 2016 is projected to be even bigger, more than doubling the additions in 2015 with a staggering 119-percent increase.4
Residential solar installation is the fastest-growing market within solar energy. However, utility and commercial installations are also on the rise. As the technology develops, the price of solar systems has been dropping, which makes it more appealing for both consumers and industry. This has been a major contributing factor to the recent growth, along with federal and state initiatives and tax incentives. And as the industry grows, more employers are reporting that it is difficult to find qualified workers.
As of 2015, the solar industry added workers at a rate that was almost 12 times faster than that of all industries combined. More than 208,800 solar workers were employed across the country as of November 2015. That was a 20-percent increase from the previous year, and solar jobs are expected to grow in number by 15 percent through 2016. And many of these jobs in solar energy pay well. Check out these careers and the median wages reported in 2015:5
- Sales, marketing, and customer service workers—$29.00 per hour
- Solar designers—$27.00 per hour
- Solar installers—$21.00 per hour
- Solar assemblers—$18.00 per hour
The solar workforce is now larger than that of the oil and gas extraction, oil and gas pipeline construction, and coal-mining industries.5 With the potential growth opportunities within the solar sector and jobs available in all areas, a career in solar energy could be a great choice for you.
Wind Energy Jobs
Wind provides clean, renewable energy that uses almost no water and emits no greenhouse gases or conventional pollutants. People have been using wind power for thousands of years. Traditionally, windmills have been used to pump water and crush grain. However, today's windmills, which are called turbines, are much more technologically advanced. The massive blades of wind turbines capture the wind, which is converted into mechanical energy and then electricity. There are three common types of wind power:
- Utility-scale wind—Large turbines deliver energy to the power grid, and utility companies distribute it to the end user.
- Distributed wind—Small turbines directly power a home or other structure or property.
- Offshore wind—Large turbines are set up in bodies of water. (These are not yet in operation in the U.S.)
Improved turbine technology is making it more affordable to install and operate wind turbines. Since there are no fuel costs associated with producing wind energy, consumers and utility companies are able to lock in rates for as long as 20 to 30 years, which gives wind-generated power excellent pricing stability.
The U.S. generates more wind energy than any other country, with the exception of China. By 2050, it is said that the U.S. could avoid the emission of more than 12 gigatons of greenhouse gases and conserve 260 billion gallons of water every year through the use of wind energy. In 2015 alone, an estimated 73 billion gallons of water were saved due to wind energy, which made up 41 percent of power capacity additions. There is enough wind energy installed across the country to power 20 million homes, and there are approximately 88,000 jobs within the wind industry.2
Additionally, wind turbine technician jobs are estimated to grow in number by 96 percent from 2016 to 2026.6 And according to 2018 data, wind turbine technicians enjoy hourly pay ranging from $18.17 to $40.17 or more. The highest numbers of jobs are found within the states of Wyoming, North Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. However, West Virginia, Colorado, North Dakota, Washington, and Illinois offer the highest-paying jobs. The average hourly rate in these states ranges from $30.86 to $37.51.7
Geothermal Energy Jobs
Geothermal energy is another clean and sustainable form of energy that involves using the earth's internal heat. The NREL is heavily invested in conducting research to advance geothermal technologies in the areas of geothermal electricity production, geothermal direct use, and geothermal heat pumps. Geothermal pumps can be used to control the temperature of buildings, and geothermal power plants use steam or hot water in order to power turbines that capture the energy.
The U.S. has the highest level of geothermal power operating capacity of any country.8 There are more than 80 geothermal plants in operation in the U.S. Most of these are located in the west, primarily in California and Nevada. And there are over 130 geothermal operations in development in the central and western U.S.2
At the end of 2014, the geothermal industry consisted of approximately 35,000 jobs.1 It is considered to still be a small and developing industry. As a result, most of the jobs tend to be concentrated in the areas of science, engineering, drilling, the skilled trades, and power plant operations. The types of jobs that you may encounter could range from environmental scientist and geologist to mechanical engineer and electrician to roustabout and plumber.
Bioenergy refers to renewable energy that comes from biological sources. These sources are referred to as feedstocks and include plant life—such as canola, corn, and wheat—as well as forestry, livestock, and municipal waste. One of the most common bioenergy products used today is biofuel. The three main types of biofuel are:
- Ethanol—Although it's called a fuel, it's actually a form of alcohol. Crops like canola, corn, and wheat are fermented, distilled, and dried in order to produce ethanol. There are also new technologies in development that will turn raw waste, such as forestry or municipal solid waste, into ethanol. Ethanol is commonly mixed with gasoline for use in motor vehicles in order to reduce vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to petroleum, sugarcane ethanol results in a 78-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission. And that amount increases to 86 percent for cellulosic ethanol (which is ethanol that is produced from cellulose in non-food sources).2
- Biodiesel—Similar to ethanol, biodiesel is another form of fuel that is produced from vegetable oils, recycled cooking greases, and other fat sources. It can be mixed with petroleum-based diesel, or it can be used on its own in modified engines. Biodiesel reduces the level of pollutants released when burning diesel, which includes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide.
- Biogas—Also known as renewable natural gas or green methane, biogas is created by fermenting organic feedstock (like manure), food-processing waste, and other plant sources. Heating these feedstock sources results in the production of gas. As that gas rises, it is collected by a piping system. Biogas is most often used to power turbines in order to generate electricity.
Bioproducts represent another emerging area of bioenergy. It involves a process in which biomass can be used to create biodegradable products that were previously petroleum-based. These include items like plastics, textiles, synthetic fabrics, glue, and antifreeze.
The bioenergy industry consists of several different levels of production in which jobs can be found. There are jobs related to collecting residues and biomass from forestry and municipal-waste operations as well as to growing, harvesting, and collecting residues from crops. From there, the biomass feedstocks are sent to biorefineries where workers use technology to convert the feedstocks into fuel. Once the fuel has been created, it needs to be transported and delivered to market. So from collection to production to transportation, you can find jobs in occupations like farmer, tree farm worker, harvesting-equipment mechanic, agricultural engineer, biochemist, and truck driver.
According to 2014 data, there are 152,000 direct and indirect jobs supported by the biomass industry (which is comprised of the organizations involved in collecting, handling, and transporting organic matter). And there are more than 852,000 renewable biofuel jobs (including direct, induced, and supply chain positions). Additionally, 14,000 direct and indirect jobs are found within the waste-to-energy industry.1
Hydrogen & Fuel Cells
Hydrogen is the most simple, and one of the most abundant, elements on Earth. Hydrogen is sometimes used as a fuel, and the engines that burn it have virtually no emissions. NASA used liquid hydrogen to send its space shuttles into space, and it still uses it to launch its rockets into orbit. NASA also used hydrogen fuel cells to power its shuttles' electrical systems.
A hydrogen fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen in order to create electricity, heat, and even water. Fuel cells are often compared to batteries in the way they operate. However, a fuel cell will never lose its charge as long as it receives a supply of hydrogen. It essentially harnesses and uses the power of hydrogen.
Fuel cells are starting to be used as a power source for vehicles as well as a heat and electricity source for buildings. They can also be used for stationary backup power, and they can power almost any battery-powered portable device. Along with being pollution-free, fuel cell systems are a much more energy-efficient renewable energy than that of conventional fuels and technologies.
Hydrogen and fuel cell technology is an emerging area. Many research and development projects are attempting to evolve the use of hydrogen and fuel cells even further. Although the job data for the field is limited, a 2011 study found that 10,845 jobs are supported directly and indirectly by the fuel cell industry.1 The majority of the jobs are related to science and engineering as well as manufacturing and power plant operations. This can be a great field to get into if you are interested in working in electrochemical or mechanical engineering or other physics- and chemistry-related positions.
Marine: Careers in Ocean & Tidal Energy
Marine energy—also known as ocean, tidal, and wave energy—is a developing area of renewable energy. It is primarily in the research and development stages as organizations look at viable ways to capture the energy from the ocean's waves and tides. Scientists and engineers are looking at ways to scale the technology to make it more affordable while minimizing any potential impact or harm to aquatic life.
Considering that oceans make up about 70 percent of the earth's surface, marine energy could have great potential as a renewable energy resource. However, tidal energy is the most viable in areas that have large tidal differences. So, in the U.S., this means that Alaska and Maine have the most potential for development. But the opportunity to capture wave energy is more wide-ranging. California is considered a key state for wave energy development due to its expansive coastlines and powerful waves.
As of 2016, there are wave energy pilot projects in operation in California while research is being conducted for similar opportunities on the East Coast and in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Gulf of Mexico. Although U.S. job data is limited, there could be 36,000 jobs directly and indirectly related to marine energy by 2030 if marine power targets are achieved.1
Alternative Energy Careers Can Be Found Across All Areas
The renewable energy industries discussed above can offer a lot of interesting and varied careers. And for people interested in scientific and technical positions within these sectors, there are a number of environmental schools that can help you acquire the knowledge and abilities that you need to go after many different kinds of green jobs. But not all careers in green energy are tied to a specific industry or skill set. In fact, professionals are needed in all areas, such as business, technology, and the skilled trades.
Check out the occupations below that are also in demand throughout the green energy sector. (Note that the annual salary range provided covers all industries and is based on May 2018 data.)7
- Welder—$28,560 to $63,740 or more
- Heavy equipment operator—$31,320 to $84,160 or more
- Plumber—$32,100 to $93,700 or more
- Electrician—$32,940 to $94,620 or more
- Construction manager—$55,240 to $161,510 or more
- Civil drafter or engineer—$35,020 to $142,560 or more
- Architect—$48,020 to $138,120 or more
- Mechanical engineer—$56,270 to $136,550 or more
- Electrical engineer—$61,190 to $153,240 or more
- Public relations specialist—$33,690 to $112,310 or more
- Marketing specialist—$34,310 to $121,080 or more
- Accountant—$43,650 to $122,840 or more
- General or operations manager—$44,710 to $208,000 or more
- Human resources manager—$66,870 to $201,380 or more
- Computer security analyst—$56,750 to $156,580 or more
- Computer network architect—$60,310 to $164,280 or more
- Software engineer—$61,660 to $166,960 or more
Prepare to Start Changing the World
Are you ready to help make the world a greener place? Before you start searching for entry-level renewable energy jobs, you may need to attain an education within your area of interest. Find out which schools are offering green energy job training by entering your zip code into the search tool below. Before you know it, you could be helping pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable planet!
1 Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), "Fact Sheet: Jobs in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (2015)," website last visited on May 18, 2016.
2 U.S. Department of Energy, website last visited on March 2, 2018.
3 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), website last visited on August 10, 2017.
4 Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Resources, website last visited on September 13, 2017.
5 The Solar Foundation, National Solar Jobs Census, website last visited on September 8, 2017.
6 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, website last visited on January 8, 2018.
7 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on July 31, 2019.
8 Geothermal Energy Association, 2016 Annual U.S. and Global Geothermal Power Production Report, website last visited on May 18, 2016.