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Shedding Light on Cleantech Jobs

Smart grids present biggest opportunity

BY MARGO McCALL

Numerous reports have touted the job-creation power of the burgeoning clean technology sector. But exactly what kind of jobs will be created and where? A new analysis by Clean Edge, the American Council on Renewable Energy, and Green America takes a close look at the global clean tech job scene, highlighting where the jobs are coming from, what kind of skills will be needed, and what they will pay.

Hot Sectors

The clean technology research and publishing firm points out that US President Barak Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao have both made the clean-tech industry a high-priority goal, with plans for the creation of millions of jobs. In addition, many other countries are trying to establish themselves as clean technology beachheads. Countless job sites and social media outlets have sprung up to support the sector. And globally, venture capital and private-equity investments in clean technology totaled US $13.5 billion last year.

More impact than Internet boom?

The report by Clean Edge suggests that the sector offers the biggest wealth and job creation opportunities since the advent of the computer and the Internet. It cites a June 2009 Pew Charitable Trusts report that counted 770,000 jobs in the nascent clean-energy industry as of 2007, compared with 200,000 in biotech and 989,000 in telecommunications. Furthemore, Pew estimates that the emerging sector had a fairly healthy 9.1 percent growth rate between 1998 and 2007.

According to Clean Edge, solar, biofuels, conservation and efficiency, smart grids, and wind power are currently generating the most activity in clean tech. For its report, the firm defines clean-tech jobs as “those that are a direct result of the development, production, and/or deployment of technologies that harness renewable materials and energy sources; reduce the use of natural resources by using them more efficiently and productively; and cut or eliminate pollution and toxic wastes.”

Comparable salaries

In its analysis of compensation, salaries were apparently on par with other sectors. For example, an embedded systems engineer with a bachelor’s degree would typically make $77,100, a hardware design engineer $87,700, an entry-level software engineer $65,500, and an electrical design engineer $65,000.

In the US, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Washington, DC are distinguishing themselves as top areas of clean tech job creation. Worldwide, the activity is highly dispersed. Feiberg, Germany is turning out to be the top center for solar PV manufacturing; Randers, Denmark a hub for wind turbine manufacturing, St. Louis, Missouri, a leader in green building design; Tel Aviv a center for plug-in hybrid vehicles and infrastructure; and Spokane, Washington a stronghold for smart grid networking, controls, and devices.

For technology professionals, smart grids represent one of the hottest areas of potential jobs, with opportunities in enhanced grid monitoring, renewable energy integration, smart meter networking, and consumer energy management. “Deployment of these upgrades to the world’s electrical grids will require an enormous amount of manpower—and this means jobs,” states Clean Edge’s annual report.

Although installing smart meters and building transmission and distribution networks will account for some jobs, the lion’s share of work will have to do with the digital management of data, as was the case with the Internet.

'Mother of all networks'

But there will be a difference. According to the report, “With even more nodes than the Internet, however, the smart grid will be the mother of all networks, placing the work of creating smart grids largely on the shoulders of the IT community.”

High-level IT executives are already flocking to smart grid startups, a trend that Clean Edge expects to continue. The firm cites Judy Lin, who left Cisco Systems to join Silver Spring Networks, and John Spirtos, who moved from Comverse Technology to GridPoint. Veteran technology professionals are also forming their own companies, such as Greenbox and Ecologic Analytics. And traditional technology companies like Cisco and IBM are branching out to offer products and services to serve the new market.

The report referred to the smart grid market as having “some serious job creation potential,” with up to 280,000 direct jobs created in the US alone between now and 2012. “IT veterans and novices, recognizing the smart grid’s potential, are shifting attention to this booming industry. The smart grid scale-up demands a workforce that can handle the technical challenges of bringing 21st century networking capabilities to our vast and largely antiquated energy infrastructure.”

What kind of jobs?

In the smart-grid arena, potential jobs include advanced metering engineer, energy analytics manager, grid application systems analyst, architects, network operations technicians, and solutions experts.

According to the report, clean tech pure plays are a leading source of jobs. The top three pure plays are Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems, which employs 21,100; China’s LDK Solar, where 14,100 work; and the US’s Nalco, which has 11,700 employees. Multinationals are also bolstering their clean-tech expertise. For instance, according to the report, Siemens employs 5,000 in its wind division, BP more than 2,200 in its solar operation, and GE Energy 40,000. And as clean technology nudges closer to the mainstream, some manufacturers that closed their doors, particularly in the US, are reopening as clean-technology plants.

Energy efficiency—which includes building retrofits and smart grid installation—is one of the most active areas for hiring, according to the report. The research firm cites a June Political Economy Research Institute publication indicating that eight times more jobs were created in building retrofits and five times more jobs in smart grids as in the US coal industry. Germany and the US have both allocated funding for retrofits.

The electric utility industry, threatened with impending mass retirements, is currently in dire need of employees with clean-technology expertise. And educational programs to support its transition to a new workforce are beginning to emerge. Universities, trade groups, companies, and students are clamoring for clean-technology training programs. (CW, 4 November, 2009) 

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