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Blog: Climate Action is an Engineering Workforce Opportunity

Blog: Climate Action is an Engineering Workforce Opportunity

A panel of industry leaders looks at how to match skilled workers with clean energy jobs.
Taking action to avert the impacts of climate change will take more than good ideas and the will to implement them. It will also require training engineers and other technological workers with the skills to turn these solutions into reality.

That was the message of “Connecting for Climate Action: Powering the Future,” a discussion held at ASME headquarters in New York City on the first evening of Climate Week NYC, the annual series of events that showcase global climate action and raise awareness among policymakers attending the United Nations General Assembly. The panel was one of several ASME-sponsored events that brought together leaders from industry, finance, and government to find a path toward reducing and eventually eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions.

Thomas Costabile delivers his introductory remarks“We’re here for one reason: to exchange ideas and to really begin collaboration in a different way,” said ASME executive director and CEO Thomas Costabile in his introductory remarks. “We firmly believe that collaboration is not just a choice, but a necessity in our journey to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

The panel, moderated by Matthias Muehlbauer, founding partner of OnePointFive, a company specializing in proving project management capabilities to implement climate and sustainability solutions, was tasked with examining the impact of the transition to zero-carbon energy systems on the technical and engineering workforce, but the conversation ranged over many issues, which is a testament to how integral energy is to the entire economy.

“The energy sector makes up around 74 percent of our total emissions globally and intersects with every single industry,” Muehlbauer said. “There’s never been a more exciting time to be in energy right now.”

Workforce Blog: The Engineer of the Future

That point was also emphasized by Ida Hempel, vice president for market development at Galvanize Climate Solutions in San Francisco, who represented the viewpoint of the venture capital industry.

“Yes, we have so much work to do, but whether you look at solar or wind or batteries, we’ve made incredible gains already,” Hempel said. “We’ve seen costs fall up to 70 percent over the last 10 years. If you look at announced capacity additions for batteries, electrolyzers, and solar, we are trending almost on track for where we need to be by 2030.”

Getting those technologies deployed will require moving a large, skilled workforce into the green energy sector. From the perspective of Amy Peterson, senior advisor in the Loan Programs Office of the U.S. Department of Energy, the main issue at present is not the lack of workers capable of deploying these new systems, but rather sending out the signals that they could find good jobs in the field.

Blog-Climate-Action-is-an-Engineering-Workforce-Opportunity_02.jpg“There’s not a lack of a skilled workforce,” Peterson said. “We need to prepare the people who are interested and connect them to those jobs. A big part of what we’re doing is ensuring that, if we’re supporting something being built in western Tennessee, or Utah, or Louisiana, we’re investing in the workforce and in the education systems in those areas, so that people there can have access to those jobs.”

According to Sean Bradshaw, senior fellow at Pratt and Whitney who is involved with the effort to develop jet engines that can run on hydrogen, the workforce challenge extends to engineering education. The challenges require skills that cut across many engineering disciplines, he said.

More on This Topic: Adopting a Sustainability Mindset

“Our concept operates on an advanced thermodynamic cycle, not the same old thermal cycle that has powered jet engines since World War II,” said Bradshaw, who is also the chair of the ASME Committee on Sustainability. “I need engineers who are versed in statistical thermodynamics and cryogenics, because hydrogen on an airplane would be stored in liquefied form at -450 °F. I’d also say we need more electrical engineers. The engineer of the future will have to blend electrical engineering maybe some machine learning and mechanical engineering principles to push our advanced propulsion technologies forward.”

Another call for interdisciplinary engineering came from Brian Berzin, CEO of Thea Energy, a startup in Princeton, N.J., that is developing a fusion reactor. While fusion science requires physicists with extensive backgrounds in plasma and subatomic particles, the engineering needed to turn the science into power plants will need skillsets that don’t match those currently found in the power industry, Berzin said.

“The engineering for fusion power plants starts to look like aerospace,” he said. “We deal with things that must operate at high or low temperature. We deal with things that need to be manufactured to a high degree of precision and also handle very high structural stress. So fusion needs to be an ‘aerospace-esque’ product in an energy package.”

Even in the face of the great demand for technically trained workers and the opportunities in clean energy, the question of inspiring today’s young people to pursue engineering studies was still top of mind for the panelists. “I'm a big proponent of the smartest students in the country choosing to major in engineering, because engineering is a great profession,” Bradshaw said. “But how do you inspire them to choose this profession? That’s a broader, tougher problem.”

Bradshaw continued, “We need to invest more in science and engineering in the United States. It has to be done through public education, supported by the taxpayer. Education should be a national priority.”

Breakthroughs are welcome and perhaps essential to meeting the challenge of climate change, but the take-home message of the panel was that it will take people, especially engineers, to scale up these innovations into usable solutions.

Jeffrey Winters is editor in chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine.

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