Jobs in clean energy and sustainability

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By Terri Williams

Over 4 million people work in the clean energy and sustainability economy in the U.S., according to the 2017 Energy and Employment Report by the Department of Energy.

“Industries that are focused on renewable energy and sustainability are some of the fastest growing sectors of our economy,” said Chris Gorrie, campus president at Ecotech Institute, a college in Aurora, CO, that is solely dedicated to programs in renewable energy and sustainability.  “We’ve seen expansion in these areas even when the economy as a whole was in recession as late as a few years ago – and the reason for this is that there is a demand for these jobs.”

Many states have set their own mandates for renewable generation, and industries are responding to this demand, according to Gorrie. “Wind, solar and other renewable technologies have also made great strides toward grid parity with fossil fuels, and this economic imperative will do nothing but quicken the pace of development,” he said.

Gorrie believes the country must continue its commitment to renewable energy. “We have but one choice going forward and that is to build a new, clean, energy economy while we still have the cheap power to do so,” he said. “It took us over a century to build out the power grid in this country, and building the infrastructure for a renewable future will be no less of a project.”

Specialized roles

The Environmental Defense Fund produced a detailed report on jobs in clean energy and sustainability. Most workers are employed in the following fields:

  • Renewable energy
  • Energy efficiency
  • Advanced vehicles
  • Energy storage
  • Advanced grid technologies

Renewable energy

Renewable energy accounts for 777,000 U.S. employees. In 30 states, there are more wind and solar jobs than coal and gas jobs, with Texas, Colorado and Iowa leading the way. Almost half (48 percent) of the country’s renewable energy employees work in bioenergy, 33 percent work in solar energy, 13 percent are employed in wind energy, 5 percent are in geothermal energy, and 1 percent work in small hydropower energy.

Energy efficiency

There are at least 2.2 million energy efficiency workers in the U.S. The majority (21 percent) work in construction. This includes installations, retrofits, heating and cooling repairs, lighting and insulation.

Also, while energy efficiency accounts for only 2.3 percent of total manufacturing jobs, this amounts to roughly 289,000 jobs, which include: manufacturing energy-and water-efficient appliances, HVAC control systems, lighting and building materials.

Advanced vehicles

Mechanical engineers, assemblers and factory workers are some of the 174,000 U.S. workers employed to make advanced vehicles, such as hybrid and electric cars. Exactly half of the advanced vehicle jobs are in hybrid-electric, 21 percent are electric, 20 percent are plug-in electric, and 9 percent are fuel cell and hydrogen.

Energy storage and advanced grid technologies

Between 2016 and 2017, the energy storage market increased by 47 percent, and by 2022, it is projected to increase 9-fold. Currently, there are 90,800 jobs in this area. Over half of those jobs are in battery storage. There are also 55,000 jobs in advanced grid technologies.

Non-specialized roles

The clean energy and sustainability economy also includes administrative, management/professional and sales jobs.

“In general, renewable energy companies hire all the same types of people that any company hires: engineers, sales people, marketing, computer related, accounting, operations, etcetera,” said Victoria Betancourt, founder of Coneybeare Cleantech, a full-service recruitment leader in the sustainable technology and renewable energy sectors. “However, if these are coupled with evidence of interest or knowledge of the particular renewable or ‘green’ technology or company that is hiring, then that will make someone more attractive to the company.”

Personnel shortages

According to the Department of Energy, companies encounter difficulty hiring certain occupations. These are the most difficult positions to fill:

Construction: installation workers, technicians or tech support, electricians or construction workers.

Manufacturing: Engineers, manufacturing or production positions; sales, marketing or customer service representatives.

Wholesale Trade, Distribution, and Transport: sales, marketing or customer service representatives; technicians or technical support; managers, directors or supervisors.

Professional and Business Services: engineers, managers, directors or supervisors; designers or architects.

Betancourt believes these shortages are problematic. “Even if you don’t believe that global warming exists, or that human enterprise has contributed to rising carbon emissions, everyone agrees that we need clean air and water, that we need to conserve rather than decimate our resources,” she said. “The technologies to solve our problems already exist – we need to create the political will, education and a sustainable path forward.”

Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.