A Career in Clean Energy? Here’s Some Advice

Each week I receive several emails requesting my advice on career paths within the clean energy space. I thought I’d take a few minutes and jot down a few of the ideas that I normally try to express in response.

First, I congratulate people who want to work in this industry, especially if their interest is rooted in a love of the natural environment and perhaps a sense of duty, or at least a wish, to do something good for mankind and the other 8.7 million species of life forms here on our home planet. But regardless of motive, clean energy is one of few arenas in which there exists a beautiful confluence of the profitable and the philanthropic; we’re helping mankind whether that’s our aim or not.

It’s a shame that there are so few such opportunities, but that does seem to be the case. We tend to think that we either fight hard to protect the jobs we have, as much as we may detest them — jobs that create pollution, addictions, obesity, junky products designed to be obsolete — or we risk starvation in order to pursue our dreams. For once, good opportunities and good citizenship are running together; let’s begin by noting that.

Next, I point out that picking an exact discipline within the realm of clean energy is tough, for many reasons. For instance, there are dozens of  different clean energy technologies, and it’s hard to know at this point which ones will come to dominate the landscape of tomorrow.

Complicating matters further, we’ve all seen instances in which an inferior product came to lead the market. If you doubt this, you need look no further than the computer you’re reading this piece on, which, in all likelihood, runs a Microsoft operating system. Computer experts in the 1990s (when I was paying closer attention to this subject) described Windows as an “abomination”; some referred to it as “the equivalent of cancer for a computer” — yet it came to command the marketplace.

But even in a perfect world, picking winners is tricky business, because of the huge variety of factors that influence the outcome. As an example, will solar thermal receive the support it needs from the public and private sector such that sufficient R&D will be focused on lowering costs and boosting efficiencies?  Right now, it’s an open question, but it’s a critical one.  If the answer is yes, most observers believe there exists huge potential here; but if the answer is no, it’s essentially doomed to remain a non-event in the energy world.

Then there is the issue of breadth. The science, i.e., the physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and so forth, is just one aspect to the successful implementation of clean energy. Think of the sheer number of disciplines that are required if we are to make the migration from fossil fuels. Here’s a partial list:

Education, Marketing, Sales, and Public Relations: Someone needs to enlighten a population of people who are currently being told that they should support the “drill baby drill” policy; the world (at least the United States) is being force-fed utter lies about the legitimacy of the oil and coal companies — erroneous beliefs that someone must set right.  We have a very long road ahead of us here — which is sad in a way, though it opens up significant career opportunities.

Manufacturing and Construction: I conducted the first interview in my most recent book, “Is Renewable Really Doable?” with Robert Pollin, Ph.D.,  Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Dr. Pollin also functions as a consultant to the Energy Department on implementing the Obama Administration’s stimulus program.

Here’s part of what he told me re: job growth in the energy efficiency sector:

My own estimates are in the range of $800 billion worth of work if you retrofitted basically the entire existing building stock to the level necessary, which of course is not going to happen, but at least analytically, there’s no reason for it not to happen because it does save people money. So that is a big project, and think about it, there’s no way this is importing competition; it has to be done in local communities.

And it’s relatively labor intensive; it offers opportunities for people with relatively low credentials. To retrofit an average project if you spend $1 million, you’ll get about eight jobs directly, and another eight jobs either indirectly—meaning jobs for the suppliers—or jobs created through a multiplier effect, through people having more money because they have jobs and then they’re spending the money. So you’ll get between 16 to 17 jobs per million-dollar expenditure in retrofit projects. Which is good. It’s not the best, but it’s certainly the best in the area of energy.

This is a project that could go on for 20 years and could make everybody save money – and I mean everybody. There are subsidies out there, but the market really hasn’t taken off yet.

Let’s compare spending money on green energy versus fossil fuels. You’re going to get about three times more jobs per dollar of expenditure through clean energy, and here I’m referring both to efficiency and renewable investments. Three to one.

Now yes, part of that is because the pay level and the skill requirements for the clean energy jobs tend to be lower. I don’t see that as necessarily so bad because it creates more entry-level jobs. Some of them have decent job ladders, and the other thing is because you’re creating three times more jobs overall, in absolute terms you’re going to have more jobs of all types, of all quality levels, of all pay levels. That’s something else that I’ve shown.

So yes, proportionately, dollar for dollar you get higher quality, more skill and education requirements through spending in the fossil fuel economy, but that does not compensate for the fact that dollar for dollar you get three times more jobs overall in clean energy; you get more jobs at all levels through the clean energy economy.

Law: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)  bills itself as the nation’s most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.


At the end of the day, this breadth is a good thing. What it means is that there are tons of different ways of approaching the subject and involving oneself within it.

As I like to say when I’m asked this question on radio or television interviews: with the possible exception of Scottish Folk Tunes, every single subject that one can take in college has bearing in one way or another on the migration to clean energy.

Think about it: in addition to the science/technological side, we have:

• Sociology – How do groups of people think and act with respect to social and anti-social behavior?

• Anthropology – How has mankind evolved to deal with the long-range planning that is so essential to our survival at this point?

• Psychology – At an individual level, how do people react to the challenge of doing the right thing, even if it’s a
bit more expensive?

• Economics – Who will bear the cost of renewable energy and cleantech?

• Political science – How should our elected leaders help to make this happen?

• Philosophy – What are our rights as they relate to common property like the oceans and skies? Our moral obligations?

I suppose I would simply remind career-minded people who are looking into clean energy to choose a discipline that they actually enjoy. Not everyone likes to sell, just as not everyone’s good at thermodynamics. But everyone likes something, and in this case that’s all that matters. My advice:  just pick a “something” that you like – and then get damn good at it.


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4 comments on “A Career in Clean Energy? Here’s Some Advice
  1. Guillermo Trillo says:

    I would like to share this article with my friends, but they just read in Spanish. Could it be possible to get the translation or to translate it by my self?

    God bless you all.

    Best regards…

    • Craig Shields says:

      You may most certainly translate it. Then, if you’d like, become a guest-blogger and post it.

      Esta’ bien. Gracias.

  2. Hi Craig,

    I think that anybody contemplating a career in Clean Energy has always to take a look at the engineering and scientific aspects of the field to find a very demanding and yet rewarding career, why because we live in a technical field.
    Yes many of the disciplines in engineering due to the sucess of prior generations of bright minded people have fall in the realm of commodity items, for instance an integrated circuit represent tremendous engineering achievements, but because it is mass produced its price is very low in the order of pennies.

    I imagine that the solar panels and even multi-junction devices will experience similar fate, because some of the same discipline used to produce IC’s is used to create solar panels as well as capital equipment and engineering talent.

    But there will always be better ways to extract energy from the sun, the wind, earth and the water. As well as other natural or man made processes.

    We are just starting to tap the potential of clean sources of energy, and when we make real strides in this area, then the next challenge is How do we reduce the CO2 levels or clean the water or reduce the size and contamination of landfills? Or other environmental challenges that either us or the next generation will have to deal with.


    Lawywers, accountants as well as marketeers can not lead the way, they lack the the tools and the vision to understand and unleash the forces of nature in our benefit.
    Cheers Mate

  3. Therese S. says:

    I’d like a job in either manufacturing or technical writing but where I live, there doesn’t seem to be any opportunities. Where does one find such jobs advertised? I have looked at some green companies in my vicinity but they all seem to be shoestring operations that don’t have the capital to expand. Incidentally, we have a chicken and egg problem: people don’t want to buy expensive energy-saving products but until they do, costs can’t start going down. (The exception seems to be mostly solar cells, thanks to Chinese companies working dirt cheap.) I live in the San Fernando Valley in California.

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