Our planet is getting warmer. Although it might sound like good news
to those who like the beach better than the ski hill, it has very serious
Over the past 100 years, the Earth's average temperature has gone up about
1.3 F. Scientists predict this trend will continue.
The energy we use to run machines like cars and TVs, and to light and heat
our homes, all burn fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources
like oil, gas and coal, meaning they cannot be replaced. When we burn them,
they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which scientists say contribute
to global warming.
It's clear we need to change our power sources. But so far, the alternatives
are expensive. Alternative energy researchers are trying to find new ways
for natural resources to power our lives at lower costs. Natural renewable
resources -- like wind, solar and geothermal power -- renew quickly and are
But there aren't enough qualified people to work in the field of alternative
energy, says Craig Dunn. He is president of WellDunn Consulting, a geological
consulting firm for the energy industry. He says the demand for alternative
energy is going to increase. Companies involved in alternative energy are
going to keep growing. However, at the same time, the workforce is getting
Saving the Earth will require a new generation of researchers.
"I would suggest the engineers and scientists that are willing to venture
into the youthful alternative energy industry will have skill sets that will
put their services in demand in future," says Dunn.
What needs to be done?
"There are a lot of areas that need to be improved, from developing better
technologies, to figuring out how to get that energy to the places it's needed,"
says Bonnie Jonkman. She is a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"In the U.S. right now, there is an effort to increase wind energy to 20
percent of our total energy mix. To meet that goal, we will need more people
working in this field."
Energy blowing in the wind
Wind turbines take energy out of thin air. The wind turns the blades of
a turbine to generate electricity. Compared to other sources of renewable
energy, the wind sector is fairly mature. The UNEP says money is pouring in
to develop new technology, and to manufacture and sell it.
"Wind turbines are getting larger all the time (with rotors bigger than
a Boeing 747), and the number of wind turbines being installed is increasing
every year," says Jonkman.
"It will require a large workforce with a variety of skills to address
the technical challenges and to meet the demand for more turbines. We need
construction workers to erect wind turbines, maintenance workers to keep the
turbines running, engineers and scientists to solve the design challenges,
and politicians to develop sound policies."
Energy in plants
Biomass is plant matter grown for use as biofuel. Researchers in this
area try to find out whether burning plant matter, such as corn and sugarcane,
is better for the environment than burning traditional fossil fuels, such
as oil, coal and natural gas.
Although energy can be harvested from corn, the method for doing so is
inefficient. Alternative energy researchers must refine the method to make
ethanol. It must become more efficient -- and less expensive -- before it
can compete with gasoline as a fuel source.
Energy beaming down on us
Heat from the sun produces solar power. Photovoltaics is one device that
can harness the sun's energy. The energy travels through an electrical circuit
to power anything electronic -- from your calculator to your home.
Photovoltaics has been around since the 1970s. However, in the past decade,
prices on solar power have dropped. Scientists hope the next generation of
photovoltaics will keep shrinking the price-tag on solar energy.
Experts predict that in the next 10 years, alternative energy researchers
will be able to cut the cost of solar energy to make it competitive with petroleum.
Solar energy has the potential to meet the entire planet's electric and fuel
needs. That's according to chemist Harry Gray in an article entitled, "Expert
foresees 10 more years of R and D to make solar energy competitive."
Energy from the depths of the Earth
Geothermal energy is heat taken from far beneath our feet. Although the
surface of the Earth is cool, the base of the Earth's crust is about 1800
F. This heat can be converted into renewable energy.
That's what Dunn works towards. "We are offering opportunities to improve
and solutions for the next generation," he says. Research is the first step,
he adds. He warns that newcomers to alternative energy need courage. Alternative
energy is all about venturing into new research areas.
"There is a great deal of uncertainty in the energy industry in general
and with emerging or alternative solutions. And there is no clear-cut solution
for North America's energy needs. Continued education is fundamental to your
work if you hope to stay ahead of the curve," says Dunn.
Energy flowing in rivers and oceans
Water is key to a few types of alternative energy. Hydroelectric power
comes from moving water -- often a dammed river. The water drives a turbine
and generator. This generates electricity. The flow of the river constantly
renews the energy needed for hydroelectric power. That's why it's a "renewable"
Similarly, tidal power uses the natural energy from tides -- the rising
and falling of sea levels. Also, waves create energy on the surface of the
ocean. This energy is being captured too.
In the U.S., there is a lot of potential to develop more hydropower plants,
according to the National Hydropower Association. It estimates that 5,400
sites could be developed. This would boost hydroelectric generation by more
than 50 percent in the U.S.
There are always new technologies being developed to capture energy more
efficiently and cost-effectively. Opportunities will flow to alternative energy
researchers in the hydroelectric field.
Imagination is important
"I think [the alternative energy research field] is just going to get
bigger. It's a growing job. The word 'green' is bigger than ever. You see
it all over the news and in so many industries. It's a huge market," says
Jay Gill. He is the national sales manager for Global Resource Corporation.
Global Resource is a petroleum research, engineering, development and manufacturing
company. It discovered a way to use microwave technology to harness the energy
in automobile tires to make oil and gas. Yep, that's right -- they zap old
tires to create energy.
So the limits of alternative energy research are really only limited by
researchers' imaginations. Ever dream of being a superhero? Alternative energy
researchers work every day to save the world -- and they don't have to wear
Energy Kid's Page
Find games and fun facts about energy
Climate Change Kids Site
Read about climate change from the United States Environmental
Watch or listen to educational podcasts for kids
Careers in Wind
Search the job board from the American Wind Energy Association
American Wind Energy Association
Learn more about the association for wind energy companies
National Hydropower Association
Learn about "blue energy"