Laurie Stone, Solar Energy International
December 22, 2006
The renewable energy (RE) industry is growing rapidly, and a wide variety of employment opportunities -- from system design and installation to hardware development and engineering -- are opening up on a regular basis. The first step in finding a career in RE is to assess what skills you have, what skills you'd like to learn, and what type of position would be most satisfying.
Once you decide what outcome you want from your training, you need to sift through the ever-growing number of schools, organizations, and institutions that offer training programs -- to find the training that is right for you.
But no matter what your chosen career path, a solid foundation in RE system design, component specification, and installation basics will make you a more attractive candidate to potential employers.
Get Your RE Degree
If you're really serious about renewable energy, a handful of programs offered through universities provide degrees in renewable energy technologies.
Two-Year Degrees & Certificates. Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in renewable energy technology, under their Energy Management Technician program. Lane's program prepares students for careers in the energy management field or as renewable energy system installers, with courses in electrical theory, PV design and installation, and energy efficient methods.
Students learn to evaluate energy use patterns and make energy efficient retrofit recommendations for both residential and commercial buildings, and size and recommend PV systems, as well as implement PV design protocol. In addition to coursework, students also complete a cooperative education requirement, which provides relevant field experience and networking opportunities with professionals.
The Renewable Energy program at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, bases their curriculum on the science of the technologies, and then pairs this knowledge with design and installation techniques. Offerings include a concentration in Photovoltaic System Design and Installation, either as a two-year associate of applied science degree or a one-year certificate.
The certificate program is appropriate for students who already have a college degree, or who currently work in a related industry. Course work includes introductory physics, and PV theory and system design, as well as two courses on interpreting the National Electrical Code.
Coconino Community College in Arizona provides an associate of applied science degree in Alternative Energy Technology, a 58-credit-hour program that covers PV & wind-electric systems, as well as solar home design. Many other community colleges are in the process of developing associate degree programs. Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College in New York is currently working to establish a degree program in Energy Services Technology and Alternative Fuel Vehicle Technology.
Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, also is establishing a broad-based Renewable Energy (RE) education and training program.
For more listings of coursework offerings across the country, search the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) web site.
Undergraduate & Graduate Degrees. Earn a bachelor or master of science degree in Environmental Resources Engineering at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. Upper-level undergraduate courses include energy analysis of buildings, principles of hydro, wind, and photovoltaic energy production and systems, and solar thermal systems analysis and design. Humboldt's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology showcases environmentally friendly technologies, from solar cookers to PV systems, and provides experiential learning opportunities for students enrolled in university classes.
If you want more than just PV training, an undergraduate degree in Appropriate Technology at Appalachian State University (ASU) in North Carolina provides curricula in energy conversion systems, waste and water management, community and shelter design, technology assessment, small-scale production systems, and technology transfer.
ASU defines appropriate technologies are being "smaller scale technologies, that are ecologically and socially benign, affordable, and often powered by renewable energy," and says that their unique interdisciplinary program draws from the physical and social sciences, as well as engineering, architecture, and technology. Students gain exposure to drafting and design techniques, as well as a thorough background in PV design and installation, microhydro- and wind-electric systems, and solar thermal system design.
At the graduate level, Slippery Rock University's master of science degree in Sustainable Systems in Pennsylvania is an interdisciplinary program that addresses building design for energy efficiency and "alternative" energy technologies, along with ecosystem management and sustainable agriculture. Students at SRU can apply their studies in projects at the real-world lab-the aptly-named Harmony House, a demonstration center that integrates various sustainable designs and technologies, from a composting toilet to a 1.5-kilowatt PV system.
Graduate students in the mechanical engineering program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison get to practice solar science at the Solar Energy Laboratory (SEL), which has been recognized nationally and internationally for accomplishments in researching practical applications that use the sun's energy. SEL "emphasizes applications of engineering fundamentals to energy problems, and leads students to advanced degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering."
If you'd like to learn about PVs and other renewable energy systems outside of the United States, you can earn a master of science degree in Sustainable Energy Engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, or a degree in PV engineering at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
More and more colleges and universities are adding renewable energy programs into their curricula, and the
listings below and on the opposite page are by no means exhaustive.
Basics for Beginners
Internet Learning. Online courses may be your best bet for introductory or refresher courses. Several RE organizations offer Internet courses, from how to design a solar-electric (photovoltaic; PV) system or a passive solar home to how to implement renewables in the developing world. Online courses generally run from four weeks to several months. Most online courses allow you to work at your own pace, on your own schedule. Instructors are generally available to answer questions, and grade quizzes and homework.
However, don't always expect an immediate response to your questions -- you may have to wait a couple of hours or a couple of days, depending on how many students are in the course, and when you are online. SoL Energy offers six-week online courses on basic PV and utility-interactive PV. Solar Energy International (SEI) offers six-week-long courses on both PV design and solar home design.
Hands-On Opportunities. While online courses can provide you with a basic understanding of RE, hands-on training is necessary if you want to install systems, either at your own home or professionally. Hands-on workshops can range from two-day workshops (starting at $160) up to two-week-long workshops (starting at $1,500). While weekend workshops give a good overview of the technology, longer workshops will provide more hands-on instruction and more in-depth coverage of the different components.
For snowbirds and other southerners, the Florida Solar Energy Center offers one-day to weeklong courses at their research and training facility in Cocoa, Florida. Their workshop offerings cover a range of topics: from PV installation to using RE for disaster relief to specific code issues. Most of their courses are geared toward professionals-journeymen, contractors, and inspectors.
Midwesterners can tap into offerings from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, which facilitates one-day to two-week-long workshops, many at their solar- and wind-powered headquarters in rural Wisconsin. Coursework includes beginner, intermediate, and advanced PV classes, women-only workshops, and PV site assessment. The Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association in Dimondale, Michigan, and IRENEW in Iowa City, Iowa, are other regional organizations that sponsor and host RE workshops, trainings, and seminars.
Solar Energy International (SEI), located in the mountains of western Colorado, also offers a series of PV workshops focused largely on hands-on instruction. In their PV Design & Installation workshop, students spend a week in the classroom learning about PV and a week out in the field learning how to install a system. SEI offers workshops in several states and internationally.
On the West Coast, the Hopland, California-based Solar Living Institute offers short, weekend workshops, such as beginner's PV courses for non-electricians and do-it-yourselfers, as well as a variety of others. Their Solar Living Center features a 132-kilowatt grid-tied PV array, as well as a number of other solar energy technologies.
Get Your RE Start
Once you decide what outcome you want from your training, you need to sift through the ever-growing number of schools, organizations, and institutions that offer training programs -- to find the training that is right for you. Contact the organizations individually to find out more about the programs they offer.
Laurie Stone is the International Program Manager at Solar Energy International.