The clean energy transition is doing more than revamping power portfolios around the world. The need for dramatic changes in the power sector is inspiring many to pursue engineering careers in this field. What those job candidates might not realize is how many ways they can contribute to making decarbonized energy a reality.
There are only so many jobs in building or installing solar panels and wind turbines. But there is a wealth of opportunities throughout the electrical infrastructure to get clean and renewable power from a generation site to end-users. A recent BenchMark article illustrated the path that clean power takes from beginning to end. Growing numbers of workers are needed at each step along the way to make the energy transition a success.
The overall U.S. energy sector employed nearly 8 million people in 2021, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report, with about 40% of those jobs in what it categorized as jobs in net zero emissions-aligned areas. Traditional electrical transmission and distribution alone grew by 13,008 jobs from 2020 to 2021.
The aging of electrical grid assets and the expanded application of newer technologies for communications and control — along with a broad shift from centralized to distributed generation — are resulting in strong demand for engineers and construction professionals in clean energy working beyond the renewable generation plant.
Generators need interconnections as access points to the transmission system. At these substations, the energy transitions from the power producer to the transmission owner. Building these connection points involves many engineering disciplines, including civil/structural and electrical.
Interconnection projects are typically new design and construction, connecting new facilities into the broader existing grid. There is great demand for substation engineers to handle everything from site grading, foundations and steel to layout, equipment design, and protection and controls.
Regulations and tariffs are evolving, creating incentives for developers to build their own interconnections instead of the utilities. Regardless of who owns the project, that entity still needs someone to design it, ideally someone familiar with the independent system operator (ISO) and its standards.
Power generation is meaningless without a way to get that power to load centers. These long-distance lines are critical infrastructure to move the energy from generator interconnection to concentrations of demand. As renewable generation facilities pop up in more and widespread locations, the need for capacity on transmission lines has only grown.
Building and upgrading overhead transmission lines depends heavily on civil and structural engineers, who must make all the necessary calculations for the poles, which must be set in foundations and accommodate the strains of the wires pulling them. The field is full of creative opportunities for engineers to adapt plans according to budget constraints, design factors or custom needs.
Once power has reached the load center, it is channeled through a substation to step down the voltage to usable levels before entering the local distribution grid. Similar to interconnection substations, these facilities require a range of disciplines, including civil/structural and electrical engineering. Drainage, foundations and steel must be designed; network integration and automation opportunities abound as utilities implement grid modernization technologies that enable efficient operations.
These lower-voltage lines are the familiar neighborhood infrastructure that brings power from the substation to the home. Based on their locations, which are often in congested and urbanized areas, these lines require a different balance of specialties than transmission. Design and installation tends to be more standards-based for the given utility. They are also somewhat more likely to be installed underground, calling for engineers with specialized knowledge of that subcategory.
Additionally, opportunities are growing to design and install energy storage technologies to complement intermittent renewable energy sources, and the overall grid is going to require extensive work from end to end in order to expand capacity and control for the coming boom in transportation electrification.
Each component of the electrical infrastructure at large is essential to maintain reliable power, and each has a vital role to play in bringing clean power from renewable generation to the masses. A reconfiguration is underway as the energy transition progresses, and a vast majority of the nation’s transmission and distribution system likely will be rebuilt or expanded along the way. For aspiring and experienced engineers alike, there are many ways to contribute, extending well beyond the renewable energy sites themselves.
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