Becoming a renewable energy engineer

December 29, 2008 | categories: Uncategorized | View Comments

Due to an unlikely confluence of world energy trends, my interest in engineering, and the internet, lots of people ask me how they can get my job as a renewable energy engineer. Most of them don't want my job literally, but they do want to work on the engineering side of renewable energy. I generally don't mind answering that kind of question, but I'm busy enough that I thought it would be worthwhile to summarize my answers to the basic questions. I realize that this will probably make more people email me rather than fewer, but at least we'll be able to skip the first few questions; the efficiency of the world should be slightly higher.

What do I do first?

Try as hard as you can to perform engineering immediately. If you can get an internship or an entry-level job, do it now. Your employer will wish that you had waited until you had more skills, but that's their problem, not yours. Do not wait until you have completed engineering school-- you might hate engineering, and school is expensive in time and money.

People hate engineering?

Yes, they do. Engineering is the impossible job, never completed, too complex to understand in full, always held up by details, perverted by marketing, unending in unexpected wrinkles. Years later, you realize your approach was wrong. Plus, it's boring.

You should assume that engineering is not the right job for you. You have to be indoors almost all of the time. You must sit at a desk and use a computer most of the day. Most of the results of your labor will be thrown away or, if you're lucky, recycled for the next design. You will be asked to resend spreadsheets to people who will not understand them. If you aren't truly obsessed with solving hard problems, it's not for you. If you cannot artificially sustain your interest in dry topics, it's not for you.

Yeah, yeah. What if I can't get a job right away?

There are two second-tier classes of tasks: figuring out whether engineering will satisfy you and learning basic engineering skills. If you pay attention, you can figure out whether engineering satisfies you as you develop your skills.

If you want to be a mechanical engineer, you have to learn a CAD program like Solidworks. It is extremely likely that your first job will involve a lot of Solidworks. You might end up using Proengineer or Catia rather than Solidworks, but most renewable energy companies are startups, so Solidworks, the cheapest of the lot, is most common. If you're well-suited for mechanical engineering, you're probably already building stuff in your basement or garage or living room; model your next project in CAD before you build it.

If you're leaning more toward electrical engineering, you have to learn to lay out circuit boards. The most common software packages for PCB layout among startups are, I think, Eagle and Altium Designer (formerly known as Protel). Eagle is popular because the free version is legal, but Altium Designer is more powerful and pleasant to use. Lay out a simple PCB and send it to AP Circuits for fabrication. For $50-100, you'll have your first set of PCBs.

What else do I need to learn?

Even if you want to be a mechanical engineer, you have to learn the basics of electronics. Read chapters 1-4 and 6 of Electronic Circuits and Applications by Senturia and Wedlock, even though it's from 1975 (thanks to Max Davis for the recommendation). Other people will recommend The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill; I think Senturia and Wedlock is much clearer. If you can take a class where you get to use a soldering iron, that's a great step, before or after reading about the topic.

You also have to learn some kind of computer programming. The languages you might learn include: C, C++, Java, C#, Python, PHP, Javascript, Perl, and Ruby. I'd start with Python or Ruby, especially if you have no programming experience. If you have any interest in embedded electronics, like the brains in battlebots, you need to learn C. If you hate or fear computers, learning to use LabView is probably your best bet.

You should also learn how the internet works. Reading the chapter 1 of Richard Stevens' TCP/IP Illustrated, Volume 1, is a good start. If that goes well, read chapters 2-4, 9, 11, 14, and 17, plus the Wikipedia page on HTTP. I'd also recommend reading C. J. Date's Database in Depth. If you make it halfway through, you're ahead of most database programmers.

That sounds like a lot of work.

No, it doesn't. That sounds like what you want to do with your spare time anyway. If you don't want to learn this stuff, go do something else. There is a lot of work in the world that needs to be done; engineering is only the optimal solution if you're obsessed with engineering or bad at optimization. We need good dentists, scientists, nurses, welders, luthiers, lawyers, and cheesemakers as well. Especially the cheesemakers.

But what about engineering school?

You must go to engineering school. It will take 1-5 years, depending on your background and what school you go to. There is a very slight chance that you can gain enough proficiency in engineering to make it without engineering school, but it's much more likely that you won't have the skill or discipline to teach yourself engineering faster and more cheaply than engineering school would. You can probably learn basic mechanics of materials or some math on your own, but learning advanced topics on your own is painful and slow.

For renewable energy, make sure you pay attention during thermodynamics and heat transfer. You need to take a statistics course as well.

No, you should not get a PhD.

Wait, you've barely mentioned renewable energy.

Renewable energy engineering is a broad field. The major skill you need is the ability to understand the physical principles that drive complex systems. For example, when someone says to you on the street, "I have a remarkable new device that will allow this skyscraper to capture all the energy it needs from the wind or sun," you listen politely. You do not need to know the details of the geometry of their vertical axis wind turbine or their solar concentrating lens because you know that the power density of wind and solar energy flows is 100-1000 times less than the power density of a skyscraper. When they have stopped talking, you ask them what power density they expect to reach. They stare at you blankly, and you can continue on your way, certain that you have not missed an opportunity.

Even when you are not turning down equity opportunities on the street, you should expect your engineering to run in a pattern that starts with the application of broad principles. Once you have an approach that can work in theory, you develop the details.

Beyond a broad engineering education, you need to learn the basics of solar, wind, and biofuels, plus or minus whatever you're interested in.

I'd start with Vaclav Smil's books:

Then I'd read in the subject areas.

Solar: Applied Photovoltaics by Wenham, Green, et al. Wind: Wind Turbines by Erich Hau is outstanding. Biofuels: Ahindra Nag's book is at least decent.

So I just read books for years?

No. As I said at the outset, most important is that you start engineering right away. Build something today, and measure whether its performance is in accordance with theory. The renewable energy field is rife with crackpots; we need well-educated engineers to solve our worsening energy problems. Get to work, now.

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