“It just boggles my mind to see how much the industry has grown and where we are now,” says Priptal Singh, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Villanova’s College of Engineering, who has worked in the solar field since 1978. “The continued growth is just amazing.” Indeed, the Solar Market Insight Report finds that 40 percent of all new electric generating capacity that was brought online in the United States during the first half of 2015 came from solar.
Solar is not alone. Experts tell us that wind power careers are also flowing fast, as are jobs related to efficiency, smart grids and other sustainable technologies.
“Jobs are out there,” says Peter Sauer, the Grainger Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Research monies are out there. I don’t know how long it is going to last, but it is for sure a great time to be in the electric power area.”
A Wide Range of Jobs
Those jobs cover a wide scope and a wide range of companies. Some engineers work for utilities, others for industry, while others go the consultant route. Some work in R&D while many more work on implementing these new technologies or adapting old ones.
Solar manufacturing itself has basically become commoditized, Singh says, but that doesn’t leave engineers out of the mix. “We have solar farms and wind farms feeding into the grid,” he says. “You have to be able to monitor and potentially model and forecast power consumption based on changes in wind speed or solar levels.” Sauer says many of the jobs in the field involve stability analysis and other studies to make sure that these massive projects will be viable in the long run. He points out that most of these jobs are with consultancies, which are then hired by utilities to conduct the analysis.
Other engineers are putting their brains toward adapting existing technologies for use with solar and wind. “The way you use cable accessory connectors or other products in a wind farm is different from how they’re used in an overhead distribution application or an underground network,” says Kathy Maher, global engineer with TE Connectivity. She says a lot of their work in the past five years has involved taking existing products and extending them in new ways into the wind and solar markets.
Still other engineers find themselves working in areas where they are tasked with improving efficiency. “The opportunity for students to work in commercial and industrial energy audits and looking at where energy can be saved, that’s a major area of growth,” says Singh. Sauer says data from the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s scholarship program indicates many grads go to work for Google, IBM, Amazon and other companies that manage large server farms or have other needs to save money through energy efficiency.
Geoff Baxter, Recurrent Energy’s vice president of engineering, construction and operations, says the industry demands people with “imagination and creativity. We are looking for candidates who are self-motivated and excited by challenges. Our ideal candidates find this type of work fun!”
Speaking of fun, working in the energy industry “takes an outgoing personality, someone who is smart as well as adaptable and energized,” says Maher. Many engineers in the field need to work with large teams and often need to make presentations to clients at many stages throughout projects which can last for several years. “It’s a very collaborative environment within TE, as well as with the customer,” she says.
Changing the World, Just in Time
Sauer reports that his students are incredibly passionate about the field. “In short, today’s 18-year-olds want to save the planet through renewables,” he says. “Our enrollment in electric machinery and power electronics technology is triple what it was ten years ago, due to this interest among the new students.”
That renewed interest in renewables comes just in time, since the energy industry faces a big shift-and not just one related to technology. A full 30 percent of utility workers are expected to retire over the next few years. By some estimates, the industry needs another 100,000 trained professionals in just the next three years.
“It’s a worry for me,” admits Maher. “What do we do when all the standards engineers in the country retire? I encourage my nieces and nephews to go into engineering, because there’s going to be a gap.”
The industry is already feeling the pinch. Singh said he feels there simply aren’t enough people in the pipeline to fill the available positions. “I think there’s an urgent need for more professionals, especially trained electrical engineers in this area,” he says.
The complexity of bringing new transmission systems online means that it takes time to build the skills necessary to work in the industry. Maher reports that her company hires people with base core competencies right out of school but then spends one to two more years getting new-hires “acclimated to the industry.” Other companies, like Recurrent Energy, are more selective. Baxter says the people they hire tend to have very high levels of experience. Sauer, for his part, says there’s a big need for people with master’s degrees for the more advanced components of the technology.
What Comes Next?
The energy industry will have numerous challenges and opportunities over the next few years. In addition to continuing to build capacity-both in terms of power generation and training the next generation of engineers-Singh sees a lot of work coming in smart meters and the enormous amounts of data they will collect, as well as is the two-way flow of power into the electric grid from distributed solar. He also anticipates microgrids to be another growth area.
Maher says she expects the next five years to see a lot of focus on remote sensing and remote monitoring, as well as the basic need to deliver energy to a growing audience. “The demand for electricity and power is growing globally,” she says. “African nations are the next big areas for power infrastructure.”
All of the people I spoke with agreed that storage remains the biggest technology gap in the industry. “Storage is going to continue to be a big issue for the power grid,” Sauer says. “We are relying on wind and solar a lot, and the uncertainty with those two sources is huge. Everybody’s talking about storage as the next big frontier.”
Of course, as with any industry, possible pitfalls await. This October, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory laid off many of its solar researchers due to a lack of funding. It’s uncertain how that will impact the industry as a whole, although critics say it is likely to slow the development of next-generation technologies.
Still, so far NREL’s layoffs appear to be isolated. For now, all signs point to the fact that renewables will continue to be a sustainable source of engineering careers. That’s good not just for the people working in the field, but also for the planet.
John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSight, Scientific American, TakePart and other publications.