The new green engineering jobs have taken centerstage in the political discourse built around climate change issues. For instance, take the Climate Change Bill, which aims to build a brand-new infrastructure for renewable energy applications while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in solar, wind, and other areas. According to an estimate, 9 million new jobs will be created in the United States in the next 10 years.
However, the technology sector seems mostly engaged in the nitty and gritty of technical issues related to the alternative energy landscape. The panel discussion titled “Alternative energy sources and related energy storage technologies” during the Green Engineering Summit being virtually held on 13-15 September 2022 provided a venue to find out what these new engineering jobs are like and what skillsets engineers will require to qualify for these jobs.
Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, editor-in-chief of Power Electronics News and EEWeb, moderated the panel discussion. He kicked off the discussion by asking Alex Lidow, CEO and co-founder of Efficient Power Conversion Corporation (EPC), what are the major trends in the green engineering job market. Lidow, a power electronics industry veteran, outlined two macro trends: the shift toward renewable energy and the shift from oil-based transportation to electric vehicles (EVs).
He said that both trends, highly dependent on power electronics, will create a significant shift in employment. “Power electronics itself is going through a huge change while moving away from silicon to wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors, which are superior in converting electricity,” Lidow added. His advice: if you are an engineering student, get into WBG technologies; study the future, not the past.
Green engineering job numbers
Shri Joshi, head of the Industrial Power Control (IPC) division for the Americas at Infineon Technologies, provided a more analytical perspective on green engineering jobs. He told the panel that the number of estimated people employed in solar amounts to a quarter of a million in the United States. Likewise, the number of people employed in the US wind turbine industry is around 120,000. So, nearly 400,000 people are employed in the renewable energy sector in the United States.
Joshi said that the numbers look ambitious regarding the forecasts about the news jobs created because of legislation efforts like the Climate Change Bill. However, on the flip side, he added that we should also consider how the ecosystem will evolve. “Solar is no longer solar alone, and wind is no longer wind alone,” Joshi said. “These segments along with EVs, power grids, and energy storage are going to evolve together.”
He also noted that solar is likely to have a high attach rate with storage systems, and when that happens, we will have an optimum increase in the number of jobs. “The type of jobs that we estimate are mainly installers,” Joshi said. He added that in a traditional industry, only 20% to 25% of jobs require a graduation degree; others are high-school graduates. However, if companies like Wolfspeed continue to invest in fabs, there will be highly paid jobs in significant numbers.
Figure 1 New fabs for SiC and GaN semiconductors will provide a venue for highly paid jobs. Source: Infineon
Next, Joshi told the panel that when you truly consider green jobs from a power electronics standpoint, most of the players in solar and wind are offshore. “So, it will be interesting to see how that part of the industry evolves over time,” he said. “And whether the federal government in the United States will add a clause like buy America or ask for a mandate in local production.”
Green engineering job venues
Henrik Mannesson, general manager for grid infrastructure at Texas Instruments, provided details about the new green engineering jobs made available in the field. First and foremost, on the high-voltage conversion side, there will be new engineering jobs, requiring competence in building hardware and developing software. Then there are embedded processing designs closely tied to the analog world. Mannesson also mentioned connectivity and security as the areas where new green engineering jobs will be created.
Figure 2 Power conversion will be a vital engineering assignment in the shift from conventional to alternative energy technologies. Source: Texas Instruments
He also noted microgrids as a promising new job engine. “Historically, you had energy generation concentrated on large plants,” Mannesson said. “Now, we are moving to energy generation and consumption that is far more distributed, which will enable a lot of companies to get into action, creating a lot of new jobs.” He noted that it will also allow engineers to pick jobs in more diverse locations.
Patrick Le Fèvre, chief marketing and communications officer at Powerbox, concluded the discussion by providing a sneak peek at the European job market for green engineering segments. He also told the panel that in terms of power electronics, his company, a developer of power-supply solutions, has struggled to hire competent, highly skilled designers.
He noted, however, that while power electronics hasn’t been considered exciting and sexy in the past, with the introduction of digital power and WBG semiconductors, we see very high interest from engineering students. “We need to train a new generation of power engineers for the future in order to maintain the infrastructure for green energy technologies.”
Le Fèvre added that in Europe, besides engineering jobs, there is a lot of talk about how fast we can move from a car repair to an EV repair ecosystem. “We need to train a massive number of people while developing new power solutions,” he said. “There are also a lot of questions about maintenance work as a lot of jobs shift from conventional vehicles to EVs.”
There are green engineering jobs, after all, and some of them are available right now. But engineers must keep an eye on the rapidly changing power electronics landscape to prep for future opportunities. Here, WBG semiconductors like silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) are clearly the most prominent areas to watch.