Climate change is an uncomfortable reality: the earth is over two degrees hotter than the late 19th century. Although scientists overwhelmingly attribute increasing temperatures to carbon emissions, reducing carbon output poses a global challenge.1
In the United States, the largest oil producer globally, fossil fuels comprise about 80 percent of total energy production.2 Transitioning to cleaner energy is a challenge, but the growing renewable sector has exploded in recent decades. This push towards new energy sources has created abundant career opportunities for those looking to lead the way towards a healthier, more effective planet.
The Current State of Jobs in Renewables
Making up about 20 percent of all energy produced, the market share of renewables has grown exponentially, especially compared to fossil fuels. Growth in renewable energy drives massive job creation, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that the fastest-growing job positions in the United States are wind and solar technicians.5 Not only do these fields have plenty of openings, but many pay well over the median national income, with renewable energy software developers reporting six-figure incomes.6 These career openings reflect a need for workers from various educational backgrounds, from wind turbine technicians with technical educations to geoscientists and engineers with advanced degrees. Alongside those working directly in energy production, demand is growing for supportive roles such as green construction managers and environmental engineering technicians.
While the coal industry faces a downturn, careers in renewable energy are booming for educated professionals and blue-collar workers. Renewables already employ 3.3 million Americans, three times more than the fossil fuel sector.8 In 2018, clean energy added 110,000 jobs, a whopping 4.2 percent of all new jobs in the United States, many of them in coal and oil country. Over 20 percent of solar jobs added were in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
Although improvements in capacity and falling marginal costs contributed to growth in the renewable energy sector, economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic has cut into short-term successes. On the other hand, while the Energy Information Administration (EIA) installation forecasts for wind and solar have dropped, the future of renewables post-pandemic remains bright. Despite losses to the energy sector and a decrease in overall electricity consumption, the pandemic’s fallout has increased renewables’ share of power generation, with wind and solar increasing from 10 percent of US energy generation to 12 percent.3 As a result, the renewable energy sector is predicted to drive economic recovery and produce even more jobs pre-pandemic.
Careers Innovating in Energy
As the energy economy evolves, four significant sectors continue to pave the way: renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, and advanced transportation.7 Wind and solar jobs already outpace those in fossil fuels in many states and represent the fastest growth in renewables.
Energy storage technology is a vital complement to renewable energy production. As rolling blackouts during high-consumption periods show, the capacity to supply electricity isn’t always there, regardless of source. One particularly promising breakthrough is Maxwell Technologies’ development of ultracapacitors.4 Unlike advanced lithium-ion batteries, ultracapacitors can equally take in and discharge energy quickly. This technology converts solar, wind, and hydropower energy derived from inherently fluctuating sources like wind and sunlight into a stable power source. In 2020, fossil fuels provided 80 percent of American energy, but the trend is clear: renewables are the future. Energy storage jobs more than doubled during 2016, and the field now employs over a hundred thousand people, whereas employment in modern power grid design has surpassed fifty thousand.
Finally, the transportation sector’s rapid shift towards electric vehicles has created thousands of jobs, including engineers, designers, and technicians. More and more automobile manufacturers are investing in new technologies for hybrid and fully electric vehicles. As charging stations become ubiquitous and electric vehicles close the performance gap, this field is poised for expansion.
The Future of Energy
While the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be anything but easy, the renewable energy sector has slowly but surely expanded its market share. Whether because of climate change or the dwindling supply of fossil fuels, our world will increasingly rely on renewable energy sources. Professionals examining career prospects should consider pursuing a renewable energy position, one of the most explosive sectors globally. For those with a wide variety of skills and educational backgrounds, careers in renewable energy offer countless opportunities to improve their salaries and work towards a cleaner, more efficient future for all.