Going green is a lot more than just a marketing catchphrase, it’s a major factor in the energy sector. As regulations continue to slow growth of coal power generating facilities, we are now facing a new, greener reality. We saw this new reality enforced as 2013 numbers were released showing coal accounting for only 10% of the added U.S. generating capacity during 2013. With coal consumption being projected to decline by 3.2% in 2015 as more coal power plants are retired in response to the implementation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, there is no denying we are in the midst of a major shift in the energy sector.
What do these changes really mean – will we see a new leader in U.S. energy sources emerge? Unfortunately, there is no way to predict if one energy source will take the place of coal or if the U.S. will rely on multiple sources acting equally to serve our energy needs. While we face this uncertainty, there is one thing we know… renewable energy is a hot and growing market. And with any growing market getting involved early is key.
So how can you stay ahead of the curve in the renewable energy sector? Below we’ve laid out a few trends, as well as how energy professionals can stay ahead of them.
With a record year in 2013, solar energy is probably the first clean energy source to come to mind for many right now. With the cost of solar panels consistently and drastically decreasing, there is a huge demand for just about anything solar. The decreasing cost has definitely had an impact on solar installations. Clean Edge, Inc. announced in 2013 that for the first time since they began tracking in the year 2000, the world installed more solar photovoltaic generating capacity, 36.5 gigawatts, than it installed in wind generating capacity, 35.5 gigawatts. In addition to this milestone, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected in its March 2014 report that solar-generating capacity is expected to increase 56% between year-end 2013 and year-end 2015. This projected spike in generation means solar photovoltaic will experience the most total growth among all “clean energy” functions over the next few years, resulting in more opportunities in solar than ever before.
While states throughout the U.S. are adding solar capacity, California currently accounts for the largest growth with 70% of total new U.S. capacity being added by this West Coast state. Energy professionals who want to be directly involved with installation and management of solar facilities might consider making the move to the West Coast, but if you don’t want to make a permanent move, another option is to consider project opportunities. There is a steady need for contract personnel in solar facilities. A large amount of the installation and maintenance at solar facilities is accomplished by contract and project-to-project personnel since the number of employees needed to manage the day-to-day operations at a solar facility is much less than that needed to run a traditional power plant. This means you can find steady work as a contractor and enjoy the change of scenery moving facility to facility as needs arrive.
For those who are involved with the design and development side targeting a solar manufacturer, engineering, procurement and construction firm or owner’s engineer firm that’s supporting the solar boom offers many opportunities. As new technologies are created, there are many unique opportunities available for engineers, such as researching storage solutions which plague the solar industry or working with a manufacturer to design more efficient units.
The solar industry is ripe with opportunities for energy professionals to get in on the ground level with products or processes that may revolutionize the solar industry or even the energy sector as a whole. If you are interested in solar R&D, take some time to research recent breakthroughs such as Screening-Engineered Field-Effect Photovoltaics (SFPV). This new technology offers the potential to enable low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells to be made from virtually any semiconductor material. As this technology continues to develop, an engineer who joins forces with a company that’s researching SFPV technologies would be well positioned to become the next expert on this emerging product.
If you are serious about pursuing a career in the solar industry, obtaining certifications in solar functions should also be on your to-do list. Currently, there are four organizations providing certifications for solar professionals with one option being Solar Energy International, which is a non-profit organization offering education of sustainable practices. Through their Renewable Energy Education Program (REEP), they offer hands-on workshops and online courses in solar that would be beneficial to professionals who are making a move to solar from the traditional power space.
When looking at functions that are hot in the renewables space, wind cannot be overlooked. Wind has been a leader in the clean energy sector for years but wind turbine installations fell in 2013 compared to 2012. At first glance you’d think trends are changing, but that’s not necessarily the case. When you take into consideration that 2012 was a record year for wind installation in the U.S., it’s reasonable to expect the 2013 dip. The U.S. produces approximately 60,000 MW of wind electricity per year, and it’s still one of the primary sources of renewable energy. Jobs in wind are expected to double in the next ten years making now a great time to get know who’s who in this renewable sector.
According to data released in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) March 2014 Electric Power Monthly, 80% of all U.S. wind generated power is coming from just 12 states. This report listed Texas as the top producer of wind generated power again in 2013, with Iowa coming in second. Even though Texas and Iowa are ranked at the top there were actually 23 states that increased their wind generation in 2013 by 10% or more than their 2012 production levels. These are encouraging numbers if you are looking for wind opportunities within a specific region, since every region is now experiencing growth.
In addition to the growth seen by almost half the U.S., we’ll see growth initiated by the Department of Energy’s Wind Program which has allocated over $227 million since 2011 for offshore wind research, development, and demonstration projects. And again, research sites are distributed throughout the U.S. – meaning you can find opportunities from Seattle, WA to Atlantic City, NJ and everywhere in between. On the West Coast, a Seattle, Washington-based company plans to install five semi-submersible floating foundations outfitted with 6-megawatt direct-drive offshore wind turbines. These floating foundations will be sited in deep water 10 to 15 miles from Coos Bay, Oregon. Familiarizing yourself with this project would be a wise move for energy professionals wanting to break into the wind sector.
The East Coast is also seeing its share of growth in wind R&D with planning in process to install up to six direct-drive turbines in state waters three miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. The project will result in an advanced bottom-mounted foundation design and innovative installation procedures to avoid potential environmental impacts. This project is expected to achieve commercial operation by the end of 2014 – meaning now is the best time to get involved.
The South isn’t left out when it comes to wind projects, there are plans in place to design, develop and install two 6-megawatt direct-drive turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach. This project boasts an innovative steel-saving foundation design so project participants will gain experience within the renewable sector working on a project that’s focused on conservation. The “twisted jacket” foundations design makes for an exciting venture for engineers as it has the strength of traditional jacket or space-frame structures but uses substantially less steel. Involvement with any of the innovative projects listed here will add significant depth to the resume of any energy professional looking to expand their renewable portfolio to include wind projects.
And last but certainly not least, hydropower is again a consideration on the job front. New hydropower projects have decreased with the economic times due to their vast costs, but we can expect them to make a return once credit and lending increases with the recovery. Hydroelectricity currently produces 99.9 GW (including pumped storage) in the U.S. and with the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act passed in 2013, we could see this number continue to grow. The Act is in place to attempt to streamline the production of smaller hydropower units by allowing corporations to obtain permits and plan designs much more efficiently by eliminating the government red tape. Moreover, most hydropower units are in need of an overhaul, as many dams and turbines are either already more than a half a century old or are quickly approaching it. Financial negotiations for improvements are underway in many of the older large dams (namely the Hoover, Chief Joseph, Lower Granite and Garrison dams). If you are interested in opportunities in hydropower, watch for improvement projects to take place at these older dams as well as projects to build new smaller units over the next few years.
With any of the above-mentioned functions, considering the future markets and skills an energy professional needs to succeed will go a long way. A little research and planning will help you determine the right path to take not only with the companies you pursue, but also in choosing the right continuing education classes, seminars, workshops, and maybe even furthering your education with an advanced degree. Seeking the right education at the right time will help both a well-tenured energy professional and a new graduate make the move towards greener energy, and greener economic pastures.
At SCR, we specialize in the Energy Sector and we are constantly evolving as the industries we serve change to provide our clients with top talent. Whether it’s supporting a turnaround project at a conventional power plant, maintenance of a hydroelectric dam, or planning for the next wind farm, our job is to find the best talent for our clients. We work with companies all over the world to deliver the highest caliber of expertise. Contact us today for a consultation to see how we can help you with your next project.