Class of 2011

Top 8 clean energy job sectors for Class of 2011

Listening to the graduation speeches made my mind wander.

In between a lot of "hopes," "follow your dreams" and reminisces that could have been read from an old Archies comic, I thought of the reality facing the class of 2011. It isn't pretty. High jobless rates, declining wages and an uncertain economy add up to a fast-food career. For all the pundits know, the United States is on track to follow Japan's 20 years of economic malaise.

Yeah, I'm a cynic. Twenty-four years of journalism can do that.

So I tried to imagine a better spin. Where are the bright spots?

For almost two years now, I've worked on the outskirts of clean energy and energy efficiency, consuming all the news I can find on the direction of this business. From what I can tell, it's about to take off on a number of fronts. But the rush just isn't there -- yet. And some technologies may go bust.

However, some clean energy sectors show promise for job growth. Here's a look at some that crossed my desk recently that may even give a philosophy major a chance at a job:

1. Electric cars -- The era of a fossil-fuel free automobile provides untold opportunity and likely a dump truck load of challenges for engineers, planners, mechanics and sales people. Here's a mode of transportation straight out of movie version of a Phillip K. Dick sci-fi novel. How it's really going to work nobody really knows. But many of us have high hopes. Planners will have to figure out how to install sufficient recharging stations. I foresee business owners getting into the picture. Imagine ads like this: "Low on power? Stop by the Sports Grill. Free charge with two draft beers. Micro brews extra." And tow truck drivers should be in an excellent position to retrieve vehicles with bone-dry batteries.

2. Energy storage -- Should renewable energy continue its expansion and even accelerate its development, a big push will be on finding ways to sequester that power for later use. Wind turbines generate energy when the wind blows and sit idle when it doesn't. Likewise, solar panels don't do a lick of good when the sun sets. With nuclear looking like a dim variable these days because of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster, utilities are scrambling not only with electrical grid upgrades but for a power source that can complement these down times. Ucilia Wang of Earth2tech reports on a promising development from General Electric that incorporates natural gas-fueled power plants with renewable energy. The natural gas kicks in when power generation from the other slows. "This hybrid power plant strategy could be even more effective in promoting renewable electricity generation than any plan to sell stand-alone solar or wind farm equipment," Wang writes. There you go. Other ideas like water storage for later generation need to be refined by engineers and the solutions marketed to cities and power companies across the nation. And here's one that boggles the mind: A pilot project for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority would use lithium-ion battery technology to store captured energy from rail cars "through a regenerative braking process and then utilize the energy for accelerating trains," according to a statement. This would supply "megawatt level energy storage" and potentially 32 more projects. Jobs would materialize in construction and across the board as projects of all sorts crank up.

3. Wind -- From offshore on the East Coast to farm fields in Eastern Washington, this sector is gaining speed. California's Sierra Mountains offer great promise of continued development. Construction has started on a 120-megawatt wind turbine project near Tehachapi started early in 2011, and the Tehachapi Wind Energy Storage Project was recommended by the California Energy Commission for $1 million in Public Interest Energy Research Program funds. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison has invested heavily in its Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, which will deliver the energy to market. Construction on the project is now under way. And that's just a sliver of what's going on. Jobs in construction and maintenance are just the obvious ones. Development and innovation will continue, employing scientists, engineers and support teams.

4. Energy efficiency -- Long considered the "low-hanging fruit" of conservation efforts, energy efficiency is also the most cost-effective and simple to do. In fact, many solar installers ask homeowners to also get an energy audit. Auditors identify areas in a house where energy conservation measures can complement a new solar system. This sector extends to municipal buildings, commercial buildings and anything that uses power, like street lights. At the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, we administer energy efficiency projects for 36 jurisdictions in two of our grants that will save 5.4 million kWh. Jobs in this sector aren't huge unless weatherization is factored in. I also expect a massive shift in design as lessons learned in the past few years are incorporated into future building plans. That will mean more jobs for those who can develop and market products that enhance energy efficiency. Insulation companies may expect to do a bang-up business, for instance.

5. Building information modeling -- This may be a sleeper. Building information systems are expected to become increasingly important and complex, enabling programmers to optimize environmental controls and save money. Cost savings in a building with such features can save a third or more over a conventional building in which each thermostat, light and utility system is operated by hand. While it sounds like something out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," this management practice is all the rage in high-rise towers and smaller commercial buildings. Homes may not be too far behind. Jobs would be in computer technology, development, installation and operation and maintenance -- all relatively high-tech and well paid. Of course, nobody wants to hear the mainframe say something like HAL 9000 told spaceman Dave: "I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."

6. Climate change -- This one may be contentious, but the data, melting polar ice and weird weather give even the biggest doubter pause. Nation magazine columnist Alexander Cockburn rightly points out the flaws in the technical arguments (read his "Anthropogenic Global Warming is a Farce" article for an blatant example of what opponents cite.) However, even if we're just experiencing a temporary warming trend similar to the "highly inconvenient Medieval Warm Period, running from 800 to 1300 AD, with temperatures in excess of the highest we saw in the 20th century," it will still mess with Bangladesh, New Orleans and any other seaside concentration of humanity. There will be huge challenges, leading to all sorts of suffering and economic disaster and, of course, opportunity for the forward-thinking municipal planners and entrepreneurs. Likewise, the air isn't getting any better and won't until we figure out a way to slow or stop pumping millions of tons of pollutants into the skies every minute. Jobs include scientists, movers, engineers and every level of medical practitioner.

7. Solar -- We came across a list of 93 solar projects representing 64,000 acres of panels planned for the San Joaquin Valley. These are the projects that have no problem passing state wildlife review. That's huge, and the scenario is likely being repeated elsewhere across the country where sunny days outnumber cloudy ones. I believe that once those Valley projects are built, others will follow. Analysts and people in the business agree that solar power will reach cost parity with fossil fuels in five years or less. That means solar will go nuts. Expect every rooftop in the Valley to have solar. At least owners will be scheduling installation or thinking about it after receiving the AC bill.

8. Biofuels -- This is one of my favorites. Advances in algae fuel are bringing the concept of farming pond scum for your car closer to reality. Isobutanol and cellulosic ethanol offer very real returns. And biodiesel from various crops shows increasing promise as crude oil prices creep up and show every indication of remaining high. Jobs? Who the heck knows? This is a big variable that could rattle the entire industry, shake up the Middle East and provide national energy security or go the way of cold fusion. I'm hoping for the former.

So there's hope. Jobs won't look like they did. But will evolve.

I often wonder what will become of journalism now that my beloved newsprint sector has dwindled to near extinction. Maybe the electronic newsroom will experience a resurgence and drag old veterans like myself back for another shot at daily news glory. Maybe not.

Whatever happens, I just hope clean energy offers our graduates opportunity. And decent pay.

Photo: My wife Peggy and son Calvin at Clovis High School graduation. That's me in the background with my granddaughter on my shoulders.