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Special Feature: Sustainable Energy Careers

Courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Credit: Warren Gretz)

Global targets for renewable energy are ambitious. For example, in the United Kingdom, the government wants to increase the contribution of renewables towards national electricity production from 3.6% to 10% by 2010. Austria has targets as ambitious as 78%.

As demand for renewable energy increases, research and development is required to optimise existing technologies and invent new ones. "Venture capital is now flowing into areas such as thin-film solar photovoltaics and biofuels," U.S. Undersecretary of Energy David Garman wrote in an email. "Universities, government labs, and even traditional energy technology services providers such as General Electric and General Motors are investing in sustainable technologies at unprecedented levels." The people who do that work are scientists and engineers, so that ought to be good news for job-seeking scientists.

But in the world of scientific careers, things are rarely simple. What does it really mean in terms of job opportunities for early career scientists and engineers? Garman could hardly be more enthusiastic: "Given the necessity that we strive toward sustainability, and given that necessity is the mother of invention, there has been no better time for a young researcher to choose this field. The work is sure to be enormously satisfying and important."

It's good work, no doubt--but only if you can get it. So can you get it?

We've now studied the issue and reached a definite conclusion: We're not really sure. It's probably a mixed bag, according to the experts we consulted. Companies appear to be hiring vigorously in some sectors, but it isn't clear how many of those jobs are actually going to scientists and engineers. In some fields--hydrogen technology, for instance--scientists are finding plenty of opportunities, whereas in others--such as wind--most of the jobs appear to be going to engineers and other technical and nontechnical types.

In this special feature, which will run for 2 weeks, we look at several sustainable energy sectors in North America and Europe.

Solar Energy
The future of solar energy is looking sunnier than ever. Anne Forde talks to European scientists about their careers in the solar-energy industry and discovers that these jobs are likely to appeal to scientists interested in R&D with a small r and a capital D.

Hydrogen Energy
The job market for scientists in hydrogen technology is heating up. Andrew Fazekas , our contributing editor for Canada, talks to hydrogen-energy insiders across North America about training opportunities and career prospects. He learns that these companies are hiring scientists faster than we can train them.

Wind Energy
Wind energy is one of the fastest growing sources of electricity in the United States, with its best year so far occurring in 2005. This hurricane of activity has meant an increase in jobs--but we're still not sure how many of these jobs are appropriate for scientists. MiSciNet's Robin Arnette talks to leaders in wind energy research to find out more.

Financing Alternative Energy Research
Science Careers Managing Editor Alan Kotok looks into ways of financing alternative energy research in the United States, with a focus on entrepreneurship. Federal funding is on the rise, he finds, and private capital is available for projects with commercial applications.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

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