Back to School With Biomass

By Bruce Folkedahl
Returning from a business trip on a flight from Memphis to Minneapolis, my boss sat next to a young man who was traveling to be in a friend's wedding. He was using a "diamond traveler" ticket earned with air miles accumulated mostly from his job as a turbine repair technician. Gas turbines for electrical power have been installed around the clock for several years because of cheap gas, lower capital costs, rapid construction and the goal of greater efficiency and lower carbon dioxide emissions. This young traveler was living the American dream. He attended a technical college in Minnesota for one year, was snatched up early by an energy business, and has been flying to strange lands experiencing cultures and people he had only read about on Wikipedia.

All levels of government in the U.S., from the Student Senate at the University of North Dakota to the current Democratic administration, have made assertions that the current economic downturn can be countered, in part, by creating jobs in energy efficiency and sustainable renewable energy. That young turbine repairman's career path is a product of the quest for higher efficiency in energy production and lower carbon dioxide. But before large numbers of the American population heat and electrify their homes with renewable energy and energy efficient technologies, the workforce necessary to make that happen will need to learn new skills and receive appropriate job training.

A report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Research into Action Inc.,1 states that just the energy efficiency side of U.S. job growth could triple in the next 10 years, but only if education and job training are stepped up dramatically.

Most small business owners will agree that any significant increase in energy efficiency and green jobs will require a workforce dedicated to the realization of this objective. Yet for those individuals wanting to gain educational background and actual degrees in these fields, the choices can be limited. While a few schools actually have a specific curriculum devoted to renewable energy, such as Appalachian State University and Oregon Institute of Technology, most prospective students will have to enter traditional fields of academic endeavor and tailor their course work by adding classes in renewable energy.

Additionally, part-time employment, summer employment, and internships in renewable industries are invaluable in gaining not only experience but building the credentials for a successful resume and future career. Jobs that deal in renewable and sustainable energy, to the surprise of many, will more often than not be in what would be considered traditional energy fields, such as the fossil power generation industry. These organizations are transitioning to utilization of more sustainable fuels and processes and will require individuals with the motivation and skills to guide them. Some of these jobs will be strictly technical in nature such as engineering required to design and build biomass conversion systems or technicians to service wind generation systems. Other jobs will be found throughout the renewable energy field, including such traditional occupations as communications, community outreach, sales and marketing, finance, accounting, human resources, law, etc.

Utilization of biomass has been occurring for tens of thousands of years as a heat source. Transitioning to a more sophisticated use of biomass to generate power as well as other renewable products, however, is a challenge that will take a significant amount of effort. This effort requires more attention from higher education as the training ground for the future of renewable energy.

More jobs in renewable, efficient energy definitely require commensurate emphasis on these disciplines in U.S. science, engineering and applicable technical educational programs. I don't think all of our young people will become diamond travelers visiting exotic places, but they will definitely improve their chances for landing a well-paying job and living the American dream.

For job opportunities in renewable energy at the Energy & Environmental Research Center, visit

Bruce Folkedahl is a senior research manager at the EERC. Reach him at or (701) 777-5243.

1Goldman C.A. et al. Energy Efficiency Services Sector: Workforce Education and Training Needs, report for the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; March 2010.