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BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Illustration by Sara Hayward

THEIR FUTURE IS GREEN THEIR FUTURE IS GREEN

The clean-energy economy promises an engineering jobs bounty. For universities, the challenge will be training enough graduates with the right skills.


Can America produce and consume 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022?

That's the goal set by the U.S. renewable fuels standard. Given that the country currently produces 150 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the standard, if met, could cut gasoline consumption by 24 percent. But David Shonnard, a professor of chemical engineering at the Michigan Technological University, thinks that the United States can do even better. If the nation converted most of its "deep stock of biomass" - not an impossibility, he says - it could by then potentially produce 100 billion gallons a year. Such a move would bring "a pretty significant replacement of a fossil fuel" with a green alternative - and halve America's annual oil imports.

And for engineers, it would spark a jobs bonanza. Shonnard estimates that making full use of biomass resources could add 500,000 jobs to the U.S. chemical industry. Currently, the industry directly employs a million people, and 6 to 10 percent of them are chemical engineers. So, by his reckoning, an even bigger push into biofuels could require hiring an additional 30,000 to 50,000 chemical engineers over the next 12 years. Says Shonnard: "There is a huge potential for jobs here (both engineering and nonengineering), and this is just one sector."

America is now making a big push to develop clean, renewable sources of energy - everything from wind and solar to clean coal and marine - and if it succeeds, the skills of many thousands of engineers will be needed in the next 10 to 20 years to design, manufacture, and operate these new green fuel and power systems. But can the country's colleges of engineering produce enough graduates with the necessary skills to get the job done? Yes, say many engineering educators, who claim that American engineering schools are up to the task. But there are grounds for caution: Engineers represent a much lower proportion of university graduates here than in Asia. Meanwhile, cuts in state higher education budgets continue to take a toll on faculty, staff, and facilities.

Global Competition

President Obama has declared that "the jobs of tomorrow will be jobs in the clean energy sector," and his administration is placing a huge bet on renewable energy. Last year's $787 billion economic stimulus package included $80 billion in clean energy investments. And Obama's proposed fiscal 2011 federal budget includes an additional $108 million in new spending on renewable fuels research. Of course, more than jobs is at stake. Proponents of renewable energy say it would cut fossil fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, thereby helping to slow climate change. America would be less dependent on oil imports from unstable or hostile regimes, they add. Still, with other countries investing heavily in green technology, proponents say the United States must develop its own clean energy economy or risk losing out on the promise of strong new companies generating millions of high-skilled, good-paying jobs. China, already the global leader in the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels, is investing $200 billion of its two-year stimulus package in clean energy.

Already the lure of good jobs in a burgeoning clean energy sector has students flocking to engineering schools - which is why educators say that any new demand for engineers can be met. "These kids are smart, and they try to respond quickly to market forces," says Joan Brennecke, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Notre Dame and director of its Energy Center. Twenty years ago, Notre Dame had only 23 chemical engineering students in total. This year, it boasts 78 seniors and more than 100 in its freshman class. At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, engineering school applications jumped around 6 percent last year and another 10 percent this year. To be sure, some of this increased interest is generated by the recession and jobless recovery - engineering in general is seen as one of the safer havens in a depressed job market. But many students are likewise motivated by a desire to "do something" to help the planet and see renewables as the way to accomplish that goal. Yes, they want secure, well-paying jobs, Shonnard says, "but they don't just want to make stuff in hopes of making a lot of money."

Today's students "don;t just want to make stuff in hopes of making a lot of money." - David Shonnard

Another reason that a robust renewable energy sector shouldn't have a problem attracting engineers: As it grows, it's likely that market demand for engineers in other sectors will soften. "These things tend to work themselves out by a reorientation of the different sectors," says Yacov Shamash, engineering dean at Stony Brook and vice chairman of the school's Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center. Brennecke makes a similar point. "The reality is the market," she says, and if there are jobs available, students will flock in as they are now.

Still, Allen Soyster, director of the National Science Foundation's Engineering Education and Centers division, wonders whether a growing clean energy industry might face an engineering shortage, noting that the overall number of engineering graduates has remained essentially flat for two decades. "The (overall) trend is not in the right direction," he says. Only 5 percent of American college graduates earn engineering degrees. In Europe, engineers snag 12 percent of degrees; in Asia, 20 percent. Brennecke says that's not a worry; she doesn't buy the argument that the United States has a dearth of engineering grads. "When every one of my seniors has 10 offers, then I'll start worrying that we don't have enough engineers."

Part of the demand will also be met by the retraining of current engineers already in the workforce. "Corporations will readjust," says Jay Gore, director of the Energy Center at Purdue University. Many petroleum companies have already begun the transition to renewables. Industry's need to re-educate working engineers means some engineering schools may see a need to devote more resources to continuing education. It's not a significant program at Purdue now, Gore says, "but this is likely to grow." Delphi Corp. recently arranged a contract with Purdue to give 300 of its engineers a semester-long refresher course in power electronics.

Bottleneck Forming

While student applications increase with the prospect of future demand for engineers in the green energy sector, hundreds of public colleges around the country may be unable to absorb a big influx of students because of severe cuts in state spending. Ordinarily, U.S. universities would have the capacity to meet the demands of industry, says Eric Wachsman, director of the new University of Maryland Energy Research Center. But with strapped budgets, he adds, "our ability to teach these courses is hit. It's creating a bottleneck." The result "is a classic chicken-and-egg situation." A boom in green technology that would ignite job growth - and ultimately bolster states' finances - might be stifled if cash-short colleges don't have the resources to handle increased student loads. Additionally, more emphasis on energy research and teaching will require many schools to update their infrastructure - another hard-to-meet expense. "We need more specialized labs and equipment," Shonnard says, adding that chemical engineering enrollment at Michigan Tech is nearing capacity.

Besides trying to train more students with tighter budgets, schools will need to adjust curricula to fit the growing clean energy field. "The fundamentals are the same," Wachsman says, noting that creating silicon solar cells is not that much different from creating silicon chips. Many schools, he says, will be offering more electives geared toward renewable technologies design and manufacturing. For instance, Notre Dame's engineering school last year received $450,000 in federal stimulus funds to create a concentration of electric vehicle electives. But Purdue's Gore predicts the shift will require schools to "make the transition to a truly multidisciplinary curriculum." Whereas recent decades brought more emphasis on microelectronics, the rise of electric vehicles will bring power electronics to the fore once again. "But there's no such thing as a battery engineer," Gore says, so classes in power systems will have to be taught by teams of mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers.

Shonnard would like to see more engineering students studying biological sciences and gaining a better understanding of the environmental science literature. Beyond core engineering skills, he says, "students also need an ability to communicate with a broad range of experts, including microbiologists and land managers. In the past, chemical engineers only had to communicate with other chemical engineers." Shamash agrees and says ultimately biology should become part of the core curriculum. "It would give our students an advantage," he argues, and not just in energy but in healthcare, another booming industry. It would also help American engineering schools differentiate themselves from foreign competitors, Shamash says. "The problem is finding space in an already crowded curriculum."

“There is a fear of boom and bust,” - Joan BrenneckeJust as Obama has placed his bet on the green economy, engineering schools that do likewise will have to assume some risk. Election of a Republican president in 2012 could bring a policy shift away from renewables and toward, perhaps, offshore oil development, natural gas production, and expansion of nuclear power. "There is a fear of boom and bust," Brennecke says, "and this has happened before: Think back to synfuels." But Dean Shamash sounds confident that national security and climate change will make the need for green energy impossible for any president to ignore. "This is a top priority for the United States and a top priority for the world," Shamash says. As developing countries require more energy to power their economic growth, Shonnard contends, "increasingly that will have to come from renewables because fossil fuels are finite." As for stimulating job growth, Germany has already shown the way: Eleven years ago, it enacted a feed-in tariff. Utilities have to pay renewable sources of electricity four times the market rate. Since then, consumption of renewable energy in Germany has nearly quadrupled from 4 percent to 15 percent, and 280,000 jobs have been created.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in United Kingdom.

 

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