To Meet Renewable Energy Standards, Start Educating Now

12/17/2010 02:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The majority of the US States have committed to increase the net contribution of renewable energy. This ranges from 8 percent to 40 percent over the period 2013 (2 years away!) to 2030. For comparison, in 2009 renewable energy's market share reached 8 percent of the total US energy consumption. No matter which way you look at this the future targets are challenging.

In order to meet, or even come close, to these targets there area a number of factors that need to be considered including:

  • The availability of renewable energy systems. This will need continued supply of offshore systems such as Chinese photovoltaic solar cells and European offshore wind turbines. Also attendant with this is timely permitting and available project finance.
  • Grid stability. Particularly when intermittent, or non-addressable, renewable energy sources are connected to a grid that was designed to work with conventional, addressable, energy sources.
  • The availability of engineering resource to support the necessary large-scale capital programs that will be required.

In this blog I will focus on the latter area.

According to a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) report on the science and engineering indicators the number of workers in science and engineering has achieved an annual growth rate of 6.2 percent from 1950 to 2007. However, looking at the more recent 2004 to 2007 data the workforce growth averaged a lower 3.2 percent. Based on a renewable energy net contribution target of 40 percent by 2030 then the annual growth rate required in this sector is approximately 8 percent. Assuming the sector growth rate is matched by an equivalent growth rate in engineering resource in this sector then a significant shortfall in the renewable sector engineering resource is probable unless significant interventions are made.

The NSF cite three factors that define the overall science and engineering workforce growth:

  • Increased relevant degree production;
  • Immigration of scientists and engineers;
  • Few retirements due to the relatively young science and engineering demographic
Personally, I wouldn't rely on a young workforce with minimal retirement when you are looking at a 2030 target. Immigration has been a defining feature of the US science and engineering workforce and long may it continue (and I speak as a UK national who has worked on two separate occasions in the US). However, the international competition in this area will grow. Therefore, education is a key area to consider here.

The focus of the NSF educational piece was degree level. I argue that this should be broader. In particular it should include education and training in the following areas:

K-12 Schools. In particular we should focus on giving the educators the skills, experience and materials to motivate their students. This will stimulate our children and will produce the University students and the workforce of the future. Simply, we need to develop a talent funnel.

Vocational. Listening to colleagues in the energy industry there are growing concerns about the availability of technician level resource. This will give rise to a shortfall in staff to install and maintain the renewable energy systems of the future. Clearly, this links into the K-12 piece outlined above but also there are excellent opportunities to re-train mid career staff.

Graduate Degree. At graduate level we are seeing new courses being developed rapidly in the renewable energy area. This needs to continue perhaps with more introductory emphasis on broader, multi-disciplinary areas such as policy, finance, management and systems engineering. We need to focus senior design projects in this area by providing relevant and stimulating problems to solve. Recently, I've got involved in this area and I've been pleasantly surprised at the sustained interest created. Finally, there are high profile student opportunities such as the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon and the MIT Clean Energy competitions that we should encourage and support.

Post Graduate. There are a number of post-graduate degrees available in the renewable energy area. Many of these are specific to a certain technology such as wind or solar. These are excellent courses. Coming from an industrial background I see the need for a much broader based education. Again the multi-disciplinary tag appears again. The necessary elements are technology, systems engineering, policy and management. My experience has been a multi-disciplinary team can make rapid progress simply due to the breadth of experience and an understanding of broader enterprise requirements. This will create an efficiency that will offset partially the quantity of experienced engineers. In terms of educational delivery I would see a core course element covering the areas outlined before with electives to allow course customization. I would also see delivery of individual courses that are optimized to an individual's needs (including industry); the ability to combine a smaller number of credits to secure a certificate; the ability to combine a larger number of credits for a Masters Degree. This level of flexibility coupled with online delivery offers a route to offer an attractive educational path for early career stage engineers as well as mid career changers.

This educational structure is not new. In fact a very similar approach was proposed in the 2011 Presidential Budget Request for a program called RE-ENERGYSE "Regaining our Energy Science and Engineering Edge". As proposed, RE-ENERGYSE was a $74 million for energy-related programs at universities, community and technical colleges, and K-12 schools. The goal was to:

  • Develop between 3,000 and 6,000 scientists, engineers and other professionals who would enter the clean energy field by 2016;
  • Increase this to between 7,000 to 13,000 professionals by 2021;
  • Develop approximately 75 community college and other training programs to equip thousands of technically skilled workers for clean energy jobs by 2016;
  • Educate, thousands of U.S. residents and students about clean energy technologies and energy efficiency resulting in cost saving benefits by 2016.

RE-ENERGYSE had some stark similarities to The National Defence Education Act of 1958 that trained thousands of young scientists and engineers with spectacular success. Unfortunately, the 2011 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill recommended no funding. This is an opportunity lost; but the challenge to create our future energy workforce remains.