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Careers in Wind Energy

Courtesy of HDR and DOE/NREL

Over the last 2 decades, research and investment in sustainable energy have increased dramatically. Wind power, meanwhile, has become one of the fastest growing sources of electricity generation in the United States and the world.* In 2005, the best year for the wind industry so far, 1650 turbines were installed in 22 states,* and that investment is likely to continue to grow, according to an analysis by Godfrey Chua, the research director of Emerging Energy Research, an independent consultancy.

Christine Real de Azua, assistant director of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), says that more wind-energy investment will mean more jobs in a variety of areas, including manufacturing and engineering, environmental and consulting services, and even marketing. And although some of those jobs are likely to be manufacturing and support jobs, others are just right for people with science backgrounds who are interested in a career that helps the environment.

Wind careers are multifaceted and interdisciplinary

Wind energy is clean, environmentally inert, and inexhaustible. You could say the same thing about solar energy, but in a windy place, the amount of energy available is pretty large compared to solar, according to Walter Sass, president and co-founder of SecondWind, a wind-energy monitoring company in Somerville, Massachusetts. "For the size of equipment, a modern wind turbine--typically 250 feet across, blade tip to blade tip--can generate a megawatt and a half to 2 megawatts at peak output," he says. "A similar sized solar panel array, which would be huge, would probably be five times as expensive in terms of how much area it's covering and produce a fraction of the power output."

<p>Wind energy researcher Walt Musial examines a turbine gear in the lab.</p>

Wind energy researcher Walt Musial examines a turbine gear in the lab.

Courtesy of Warren Gretz and DOE/NREL

The sector in wind energy that is likely to produce the majority of new jobs is manufacturing/installation/operation, but it tends to hire mostly engineers, as manufacturing engineers, plant managers, and quality assurance personnel. "There are opportunities in blade production, tower production, or gearbox production," says Dayton Griffin, Director of Engineering Research, Design, and Development at Global Energy Concepts (GEC) in Seattle, Washington, "and the control systems would be electrical engineering." It's not just about the machines, however. GEC also specializes in wind energy analysis, design, testing, and management. People with degrees in computer science, aerodynamics, atmospheric science, or mathematics are likely to find positions with the company. Since wind energy is an international industry, many of these positions may require lots of travel.

The wind industry also offers opportunities in the service sector, for field technicians, installation technicians, and operational maintenance experts. These jobs require a range of education and experience, ranging from 2-year degrees to bachelor's degrees in science or other fields. One area that requires scientific expertise is environmental assessment, in which the site that will house the turbines is studied to determine whether drinking water, plants, or animals will be affected by a new wind-power facility. Workers need a bachelor's degree in biology or environmental science. Some of these positions also require extensive professional experience.

Five Major Areas of Wind Energy Research

Several experts we spoke to on background shared their insight into the most important topics in wind-energy research right now. The hot topics are:

  • Turbine research--involves research to improve turbine design (aerodynamics), understanding the nature of wind (inflow and turbulence), and using computer models to design efficient and low-cost turbines (modeling structures and dynamics).

  • Wind resource assessment--provides maps of a country or state/province that includes specific wind data such as average wind speed and its variability.

  • Forecasting--uses weather models (i.e., Doppler radar) to predict wind speeds and patterns at various altitudes. It also uses old data to predict how the wind will behave at a certain time.

  • Utility grid integration--integrates the energy produced by wind into a utility grid. New techniques and models will ensure that grid operators can manage variable-output technologies like wind and solar with maximum efficiency.

  • Energy storage--uses technology to store wind energy as electricity. Some methods include converting it to chemical energy (like hydrogen), and flywheels.

But probably the most important kind of assessment work is resource assessment. Wind-resource assessors characterize the wind resource at a particular site, analyzing wind patterns, predicting how much energy a wind farm on that location will be likely to produce, and providing technical information to support site-choice decisions. Such data is important to another group, the utilities and grid operation managers. "Once a wind farm is up and running, they want to know how much it's going to be producing, maybe in the day ahead or in the hours ahead, because they need to manage the overall grid," Real de Azua says. "It's very helpful to have those predictions." Consequently, says Real de Azua, people in meteorology can find a career in wind energy.

<p>Alexander Israel, a Navajo engineering student, worked as a summer intern at NREL's National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) in 2003.</p>

Alexander Israel, a Navajo engineering student, worked as a summer intern at NREL's National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) in 2003.

Courtesy of Tony Jimenez and DOE/NREL

How to enter the field

Many positions in wind energy research require an engineering background, but according to Sass, some positions don't. "Typically, we are an engineering-oriented company so we have electrical, computer, and mechanical engineers, but we've hired business students such as MBAs too. The liberal arts-oriented person can do a lot with relatively little technical training." Sass didn't comment on the employment of people with advanced science degrees, but our experience suggests that people with advanced science training, determination, and a dose of audacity can enter any engineering field and excel there--though it isn't always easy to convince hiring managers to take a chance.

What if you want specific wind energy training? Several degree-granting programs offer wind-specific training (see box). A different approach is to join a university lab whose focus is on wind research. Students who receive specialized training usually go straight to work in the wind field after graduation.

Doing an internship with a wind company is one of the best ways to enter the field, Griffin suggests, because it gives a candidate a chance to show that she can be an asset. For a list of companies that are likely to offer internships to especially eager prospects, visit the Wind Energy Career Center at the AWEA Web site. These companies also list current job openings.

Academic Programs In Wind Energy

Texas Tech University Wind Science and Engineering Research Center

University of Massachusetts Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

University of Utah Wind, Energy and Turbulence Program

MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment

Illinois Institute of Technology Energy and Sustainability Institute

For mid-career professionals who want to enter the field, Griffin recommends learning as much as possible about the industry via resources on the Internet and conversations with people in the field. This kind of contact is important for learning the basics and the lingo, and it demonstrates initiative. "If I'm in a conversation with a potential employee and the name Vestas comes up--which is the world's largest supplier of turbines--and they say, 'Who is that?' that shows that they couldn't have done much in terms of understanding the industry," says Griffin.

Another way to learn the business is to attend workshops. Workshops provide important information, but they also provide great networking opportunities; a workshop could be a direct route to a job offer in the industry. Upcoming AWEA workshops include a Wind Resource Assessment Workshop on 13-14 September in Syracuse, New York, and a Wind Power Finance and Investment workshop on 4-5 October in New York City. For more information and for other AWEA events see the AWEA Events Calendar.

But national conferences are probably the best place for networking and learning about careers in wind. AWEA's Windpower 2006 Conference & Exhibition--held 4-7 June 2006 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania--had 5000 attendees and more than 290 exhibitors. In addition to the meeting's discipline-specific workshops, AWEA held its first career workshop for college students. One question from the students, says Real de Azua, was about engineering jobs being outsourced or going overseas. "The reply from our member companies was 'Wait, no, we're hiring here in the U.S. with those types of qualifications.' So it's good to hear that the U.S. wind energy industry offers quite a few job opportunities," she says. AWEA's next conference, the Windpower 2007 Conference & Exhibition, will be held 3-6 June 2007 at the Los Angeles Convention Center in California.

<p>Dale Berg from Sandia National Laboratories enters the hub of a GE Wind (formerly Enron Wind).</p>

Dale Berg from Sandia National Laboratories enters the hub of a GE Wind (formerly Enron Wind).

Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories and DOE/NREL

Like other industries, the wind-energy business welcomes entrepreneurial spirit. Sass, of SecondWind, says he and his business partner founded the company in 1980 mainly because he "got tired of being a student and waiting to do research that was of interest." Sass is trained as an engineer, but completed three master's degrees in wind power systems, at the University of Rhode Island, University of Massachusetts, and Northeastern. The most difficult part of starting a company, he says, is to find someone with money--and that's even harder these days than it used to be.

Renewable energy is here to stay

Many people remember the oil crisis of the 1970s and its effects on every aspect of society. The pain wasn't just felt at the pump; the cost of food and services skyrocketed, and the economy stagnated even as the U.S. headed toward record inflation. Talk of renewable energy as an answer to the problem approached a crescendo during this period, but faded again when oil prices dropped to under $15/barrel. Are things different this time 'round? Will renewables, including wind energy, maintain their current upward trend? "It's definitely a fad," says Sass. "I expect it to subside some, but it won't go away because it looks like the environment is getting worse."

Griffin says that Americans have a short memory when it comes to energy, so if gas prices drop again, it would take some of the general enthusiasm away from renewables. But he thinks industries like solar and wind have reached "critical mass." "I don't think we're going to see those industries completely tank anymore, partly because this critical mass involves major businesses," he says. "We've got GE Wind, Siemens, Caterpillar, and Shell Oil all involved in the wind industry. They've recognized that it's not just an environmental fringe-type thing. It makes sense and it's real."

* National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy, Efficiency, and Renewable Energy