The endeavor to make renewable energy use widespread across the globe is a crucial one. According to an article published by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, the world is fast approaching the bottom of its fossil fuel reserves, with some estimates suggesting that crude oil supplies could become depleted in the next 45 years or so. That is not to mention the toll that excessive use of fossil fuels has on the environment and climate.
Working on the frontlines of the battle to make renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind, mainstream are environmental engineers, and particularly those who pursue careers as renewable energy engineers. This article will take a close look at this important career path, highlighting the important work renewable energy engineers do to ensure that the world moves away from its dependence on fossil fuels to cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy.
Fossil fuels: The need for an alternative
Before an examination of what renewable energy engineers do, it is important to take a look at the concerns they deal with in more detail:
Much of the world still relies on the use of fossil fuels for energy purposes. According to an article from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, less than a decade ago, in 2008, a vast majority of the world’s energy use — some 85 percent — was derived from fossil fuels. These sources of energy — examples being coal, oil and natural gas — are named fossil fuels because they trace their origins to below the surface of the earth, the source detailed. They are essentially composed of natural matter, such as dead animals and plants, which then decomposes and becomes buried within the earth. After a period of millions of years, whereby the matter is exposed to enormous pressure, coal, oil and natural gas form as a corollary.
While the use of fossil fuels for energy has been observed since the beginning of mankind itself — the U.S. Department of Energy explained that cave men used coal for heat — it was the industrial revolution of the late 1700s in Britain and the 1800s in the U.S. that saw use of the fuel become ubiquitous. Since then societies across the world continue to rely on the use of fossil fuels for energy.
According to the article published by Harvard University, there are several major problems with the excessive use of fossil fuels. They include:
- Contribution to climate change: The burning of fossil fuels is responsible for a large portion of carbon dioxide emissions that are released into the atmosphere. There is strong evidence of a link between carbon dioxide emissions and global climate change. The word’s most developed countries, according to an article from National Geographic, are most responsible for these emissions, claiming responsibility for up to 60 percent of output.
- Health and safety risk: Excessive use of fossil fuels poses a risk to population health, with chemicals and pollutants in the atmosphere heightening the risk of certain illnesses. The source noted that this is a more significant problem in developing countries that lack stringent environmental regulations. Mining and other extraction efforts for fossil fuels can also pose threats to natural wildlife habitats.
- They are not renewable: Perhaps the most pressing reason why fossil fuel use is problematic is that it is unsustainable in the long-term. They will, in essence, run out. Indeed, as noted by the source, current estimates suggest that the world’s coal supply could be completely depleted within the next 130 years or so.
Given the drawbacks of fossil fuel use, there is a conspicuous and pressing need for a global embrace of sustainable energy solutions.
The promise of sustainable energy
As detailed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, renewable energy options are forms of energy that are infinite in terms of availability. Examples include solar power, wind energy, hydroelectric energy and geothermal energy. The benefits of the widespread implementation of these forms of energy are clear. They are, according to the source, as follows: Less environmental impact, more labor intensive job creation, reduced carbon dioxide emissions and unlimited availability.
According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, just over 20 percent of the world’s electricity already comes courtesy of renewable energy sources, with hydropower the most widely used. The source noted that wind and solar energy are also becoming more used to a greater degree than other sustainable energy sources.
What do renewable energy engineers do?
Given the increasing use of sustainable energy solutions, the demand for renewable energy engineers will no doubt increase in the coming years. According to an article from journalist Jan Burns, published by the Houston Chronicle, renewable energy engineers can be found in virtually all engineering sectors. Burns interviewed the senior director of professional development at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering Career Center, Vita Como, who elaborated on this point:
“Mechanical, chemical, industrial and electrical engineers work in the alternative energy field. Any of the main engineering disciplines can have an alternative energy component. There are positive trends and growth is expected for those careers,” she explained.
As detailed in an article by U.K. based careers website Prospects, renewable energy engineers, much like energy engineers in general, can be responsible for a number of things. For example, a renewable energy engineer may serve as a researcher or consultant, examining ways to improve energy extraction projects to make them more efficient and environmentally friendly. Or a renewable energy engineer may work in the mechanical sector, designing machines and other devices to harness energy more efficiently. A good example of this kind of engineering, according to journalist Vivian Wagner, writing for the Houston Chronicle, can be found in the production of solar energy. Engineers with a background in mechanical engineering are in demand to design and build solar energy systems, which include parts such as solar panels.
Salaries in this field vary, contingent on a candidate’s experience and engineering specialty. Careers website Payscale reported that the median nationwide salary for an energy engineer stands at a little over $70,000 per year. Electrical engineers working in this sector, meanwhile, earn closer to $80,000 annually, on average. In any case, much like engineering as an industry overall, there is notable room for professional growth, with a plethora of roles offering lucrative compensation packages.
How to enter the field
To enter the field of engineering, candidates will need at least a bachelor’s degree. As noted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to work as a mechanical engineer, for example, in all states, it is also a requirement to become licensed. Studying for an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Engineering degree, can also open up more career paths which lead to higher paying roles.
Consider the University of California Riverside
If you are interested in pursuing a career in renewable energy engineering, consider applying to the University of California Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering program. With several specialties to choose from, including mechanical engineering and environmental engineering, and courses designed to help suit your schedule, earning an MSE from UCR could be an exciting first step toward your career working with sustainable energy.