At a time when fossil fuel prices are on the rise, energy security is becoming increasingly political and there is a rising tide of sentiment towards becoming more responsible for climate change, clean energy is becoming a “must-have” alternative. By 2020, Europe has pledged to have renewables generating 20% of all of its power needs – a target that, while perhaps overly ambitious, is a powerful statement of intention towards the future of sustainability.
Within the alternative energy industry, the most popular sectors are wind power, solar energy and biofuels, with wave power, waste-to-resource and “smart building” technology also gaining ground. As all these markets expand, a plethora of new career opportunities are emerging along with them, notably in areas like engineering, building design and construction, sales, waste management, biotechnology, manufacturing and finance, to name but a few.
Sun, wind and water
The solar industry has been expanding rapidly in the UK; driven largely by a reduction in the price of photovoltaic (solar) panels and by government initiatives like the “feed-in tariff” subsidy which pays householders to generate electricity. This has seen thousands of solar panels springing up on roofs all over the country in the past few years and has led to the creation of new jobs such as Solar Panelling Consultants, sales and customer account staff, Project Managers, Installation Specialists and Maintenance Engineers.
As wind farms proliferate, jobs are also being created in planning and development, design and manufacturing, construction and installation, support and operations and maintenance, together with specialists like Land Surveyors, Electronics Engineers and even Meteorologists. Wave power is another technology that is gaining popularity, in part because it is non-invasive to the landscape. According to research by Semta (the Sector Skills Council for science, engineering and manufacturing) currently this sector employs only 11,000 people – many of whom are in Scotland which is emerging as a renewables hub, with Aberdeen at its heart (ironically also a major centre for North Sea oil). However as the industry grows, Semta sees this expanding significantly, especially for Engineers working in the early, innovative stages of a new project – in design, planning, research and development.
The growth of biofuels
Biodiesel is made from oil-producing plants like oilseed rape and soya or from converted cooking fat, while bio-petrol is made from crops like corn, wheat or sugar beets that have been converted into alcohol. By law, all fuel sold in the UK must now contain a percentage of biofuel, and while there is still debate about the viability of using valuable agricultural land to grow fuel rather than food, the government is nevertheless committed to it as a green alternative. Biomass is one answer to this debate, since it recycles organic waste products from both food-growing and industrial sources. Energy companies like Shell have dedicated biofuels divisions, and jobs in this sector can prove highly rewarding. A Design Manager with a degree in mechanical engineering, who is responsible for designing, building and operating biofuel and biomass processing centres, can typically make between £70,000 and £85,000.
Turning waste into resources
The world of recyclables is also creating new opportunities. Until recently, much of the waste generated by households and industry went into landfill sites or large bodies of water (which involved potentially hazardous leakage). Recycling glass and plastic bottles into new products is a significant step forward on the path to sustainability, but it’s a step backwards if the process of transformation requires as much – or more – energy than it saves in carbon output. Companies like Veolia Environmental Services are heading up waste-to-resource initiatives. They not only specialise in the disposal of a wide range of waste materials, they are currently exploring ways to turn refuse into a new energy source. Veolia employs 220,000 people in 48 countries who work in over 50 different job categories including accounting, advertising, banking, biotech, clerical, construction, customer services, engineering, electronics, warehousing and waste management.
Emerging green industries
It’s difficult to plan a career around something that doesn’t yet exist. Still there are new green shoots that promise to grow into mainstream industries in the future. Take the electric car, for instance. Many challenges to production and fuelling logistics still remain, and few of us want to be first adopters – yet at the same time, most of us believe that some day the electric car will either rival or replace the cars we drive today.
As the industry grows there is an increasing demand for Designers, Electrical Engineers and other specialists. In the future there will also be an army of qualified people needed to build and maintain charging stations (to keep all of those electric cars fully charged and on the road, of course!).
Buildings are becoming greener and cleaner. At a domestic level, utilities companies are providing help for householders to increase their energy efficiency and at a commercial and industrial level, more and more firms are appointing Sustainability Officers. It is their job to monitor the company’s carbon footprint, implement cleaner technology and oversee so-called “deep” commercial building refits. These systems are loaded with “smart” features that do things like automatically switch off lights after a few hours to save energy. This means a new generation of environmentally friendly architectural firms, product suppliers, consultancies and contractors – each of which are generating whole new job specialisations and training opportunities.
As the UK embraces environmental responsibility and the number of projects, products and incentives multiply, all of this must be financed. To answer this need, a new financial sector is emerging – what could be called “Green Finance”. Much of the funding for large projects comes from large energy and utilities companies, but it also comes from pension funds, government subsidies and private capital. The Green Deal Finance Company – run by a consortium of utilities and banks – provides cheap loans for people to insulate their homes. For those who are interested in a career in financial services, but also want to make a difference and contribute to a cleaner future, getting involved with this growing industry may be an attractive option.
Words: Elaine Graham
[This article was originally printed in Jobs & Careers with Hilary Devey magazine in May 2013]