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Is the field of renewable energy in the focus of solar energy a diminishing career field, or exapanding?

I've thought about a career path focused on renewable sustainable energy in the focus of solar energy, but all research suggests that solar power is a very inefficient means of powering our grid at this point in its age of advancement. #engineering #solar-energy #solar

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Fernando’s Answer

Hi Matthew.


Be careful with words, particularly when using terms that are very relevant in engineering. Solar power is not a "very inefficient" means of powering the grid when compared to burning coal or generating electricity with an engine.


Efficiency is the ratio of output-to-input of a system, i.e. output/input. The average global efficiency of coal plants is 33% (1). Most gas engines have a thermal efficiency of 20% with some approaching 38% (2). Solar cells have now a record of 26% with most of them being around the 18-20% mark (3). So, is solar “very inefficient”? Not really. It’s less efficient than other sources of energy that are now powering the grid, but getting closer and not too far off.


What some research has been pointing out is that solar power is still not cost competitive. Which is different as being inefficient. But that’s rapidly changing. Today, residential solar is not competitive with the cost of the most used forms of grid energy generation which are coal, gas, hydro, and in some countries (e.g. France, Germany) nuclear (4). Solar PV utility, which is large solar outfits like Solar Star in California (5), has much lower cost than residential and can compete with coal and nuclear. Today the cheapest form of generation is gas turbines, mostly because natural gas is at its lowest cost in decades due to the fracking boom.


The renewable energy field is expanding quickly and a career in it will certainly bring job opportunities and a myriad of challenges. I suggest at an early stage focusing less on a particular application but more on engineering and scientific skills. Later on, you will decide a particular challenge that you want to be a part of.


Regards,


Fernando Gómez-Baquero Ph.D.


(1) https://www.worldcoal.org/reducing-co2-emissions/high-efficiency-low-emission-coal
(2) http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1091436_toyota-gasoline-engine-achieves-thermal-efficiency-of-38-percent
(3) https://phys.org/news/2017-04-efficiency-low-cost-solar-cell.html
(4) http://energyinnovation.org/2015/02/07/levelized-cost-of-energy/
(5) http://www.imeche.org/news/news-article/top-10-solar-photovoltaic-plants-in-the-world

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Simon’s Answer

You have a couple of good answers and I would only add that if you persue a mechanical or electrical engineering degree and then start specializing in solar you will have many more career options. Solar companies use EE, ME, Civil and even ChE on their staff. Keep in mind that engineers play a major role in moving technology forward with new discoveries and designs. At one point we thought lead-acid and alkaline batteries were the best batteries......Good luck and set a goal to make a significant improvement in the clean energy field.

Simon recommends the following next steps:

Investigate mechanical and electrical engineering fields and see their applications
What aspects of the solar industry are you interested in? If it’s the machine side chose mechanical, if it’s the overall installation maybe civil engineering is a good route.
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Billy’s Answer

I would certainly say that it is expanding, and will continue to do so. Solar energy expansion in the US in it's early stages varied state-by-state due to different levels of favorable legislation at the state level. Since every year the cost of solar installations continue to decline, the economics of building solar plants no longer hinges on government subsidies. Good news!

With all of that being said, there are a lot of untapped markets in some states that, in my opinion, will begin to see a lot of growth.
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Ken’s Answer

Hi Mattthew!


You asked another very interesting question. Much of the answer can possible be found locally.


Talk to your science teacher and look in your local newspaper and phone book and online and in other directories to see who in your area might be involved with solar energy. People will be generally very interested in helping a student do research on a topic as long as you do not expect them to have a job. Try contacting some and you will be surprised how willing they will be to cooperate. Be sure to send a hand written thank you note to those who help you. You can use the inexpensive fold over ones that you can find a drug store. Through this means, you will be starting a process of networking that will enhance your educational and career life!


Here are some sites that will help you understand the future.


https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/01/15/this-technology-may-be-the-future-of-solar-energy/
http://mitei.mit.edu/futureofsolar
http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/10/for-the-future-of-solar-weve-got-the-tech-its-the-economics-stupid/


Best of luck.

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