Meltdown 101: Where are the renewable energy jobs?

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By GordanaV

Everywhere you turn there is talk of a shift to renewable energy, of building wind farms and solar plants, of making buildings more efficient, of developing biofuels. And of billions in federal funding to help make it all happen.

This should mean a whole lot of new energy jobs. So where are they — and how do you get one?

The clean energy sector has certainly been on a tear in recent years, and there will be a lot more money flowing in to meet government-backed demand.

Here’s the “but”:

The recession has walloped the clean energy sector like every other, and no one is going on a hiring spree right now. Companies have shelved plans for wind farms, solar parks and biofuels plants. Some have laid off workers. Others have been forced to seek bankruptcy protection.

Still, this is a growth field, and most agree business will pick up later this year or in 2010.

Renewable energy provides a small fraction of electricity used today but the wind and solar sectors are among the fastest growing in the United States.

Between 1998 and 2007, renewable energy employment grew by about 9.1 percent, according to a recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts that was based on an extensive jobs database. That still totals only about 770,000 jobs, or about one half of 1 percent of all jobs in the United States, according to the study. And the period under study ended before the recession struck, so it remains unclear how well the new energy sector has fared since then.

Yet there are early signs that, in addition to government funding, venture capital continues to pour into renewable energy.

Here are some questions and answers about the industry, including what kind of jobs are available.

Q: What kinds of renewable energy jobs are there?

A: Just about any job found in a traditional industry can apply to renewables. But a few fields stand out.

Solar and wind turbine manufacturing plants will need assembly line workers. Mechanics, electricians and maintenance workers will be needed for wind farms, solar parks and biofuels plants. And many types of science and engineering positions will be central to the growth of the industry.

Q: How is the federal money being allocated?

The package includes about $21 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy manufacturers, which has been a key source of funding to help them lure additional investments.

About $11 billion is being earmarked for improving the nation’s overcrowded, aging electricity system.

Other allocations include: $6 billion, energy efficiency projects; $5 billion, weatherization program for low-income housing; $2 billion, advanced battery technology; $500 million, job training; $300 million, fuel-efficient vehicles for federal government use.

Q: What particular parts of the renewable energy sector are hiring?

A: About 65 percent of the jobs today are with companies that recycle waste, cut greenhouse gas pollution and handle water conservation, according to the Pew study released this month.

There also has been job growth this year at major utilities that are quickly adding a big solar component to the business, said Neal Lurie of the American Solar Energy Society.

Q: What kind of experience is needed?

A: Many types of jobs require little or no additional training and transition smoothly to the green industry — accountants, stock clerks, security guards or electricians are all represented in the field.

Community colleges are offering training classes for more specialized jobs, such as solar panel installation, wind turbine repair and biofuels processing.

An electrician, for example, can spend a couple of weeks in training and then begin installing solar panels. A plumber can be trained in a few weeks to install solar thermal water heaters, said Roger Bezdek, president of consultancy Management Information Services Inc.

Q: What is the salary range?

A: A study released this year by Management Information Services and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics detailed some median annual salaries:

Insulation worker, $30,800; recycling worker, $26,400; energy audit specialist, $40,300; environmental engineer, $76,000; environmental engineer technician, $42,800; microbiologist, $64,600; physicist, $93,300.

Q: What’s the best way to break into the field?

A: Do a little research to figure out where your interests lie, think about your work experience, and consider what sector is growing in your region, or in a place where you’d be willing to relocate. Volunteer at nonprofit organizations or tour businesses to see the technology and how it works.

There are a number of Web sites that list renewable energy jobs and job hunting tips, such as the American Solar Energy Society, Renewable Energy World and Sustainable Business.

Q: Do I have to move to find a green job?

A: Maybe. There are states with a stronger green energy base and, historically, more green jobs per capita.

Oregon is tops for green, with more than 1 percent of the state’s total job base in the clean energy sector, according to Pew researchers. Once again, though, the recession complicates matters: In Oregon, 33 of the state’s 36 counties had unemployment rates of at least 10 percent last month, the state reported Monday.

There are, however, some states to keep an eye on when the economy does rebound.

Maine is a close runner-up to Oregon for green jobs per capita; Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho and California also have a higher-than-average number of jobs in the field. Colorado is big on wind, and Arizona, not surprisingly, attracts solar types. But so does New Jersey — that state is pursuing solar energy aggressively, and utilities there are plowing millions into new sun-powered projects.