Finding jobs during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been a daunting task for many Americans, but experts in the renewable energy sector say with a little tenacity and connections there are many jobs to be had.
The Clean Energy Jobs Forum was held on Feb. 9 by University of New Hampshire (UNH) alumni and other experts in the clean energy sector. Director of Local Energy Solutions for Clean Energy N.H. and UNH Alumnus Henry Herndon started the forum off, saying, “we all know the urgency to decarbonize our energy systems, our electricity systems, our thermal heating systems and our transportation systems.” Herndon was a political science major and then completed his master’s in natural resources. “It’s great to see a lot of leadership from the young people here in the state, at the professional level, but also at our universities and in our high schools,” he said.
“So energy, it’s a rapidly growing industry across the nation. There are businesses, governments, individuals that are involved in this economy working on sustainability, working to increase local energy independence and reduce home harmful pollution,” Herndon said. “This is a diverse and exciting industry that has lots of opportunities for young professionals.”
Doria Brown, energy manager for the city of Nashua, spoke about her job negotiating energy contracts for Nashua. She helps with the energy efficiency project planning on going out for rebates and manages the renewable energy projects that they have. She also does all of the greenhouse gas tracking and accounting for the city to see if they’ve met the goals they’ve set: to be 100% renewable energy by 2050, and to reduce their greenhouse gas consumption by 20% by 2025. She graduated from Franklin Pierce University, and started working at a small manufacturing company in Nashua.
“I was the sustainability specialist, but I kind of got thrown into the energy sector, because I was the only person that was willing – or some people say, I’m dumb enough – to go out and go out to bid for energy contracts for the manufacturing company.” said Brown. She explained that if you know a little bit about manufacturing, you know that those electric bills could be millions of dollars every single year, especially for multiple facilities. This means people were nervous about negotiating those energy rates. That’s how she got started in the energy sector.
Energy Efficiency Program Coordinator for Resilient Buildings Group Tori Martin got her start in the clean energy sector through an office assistant role for a residential energy auditing company in Rochester, NH. She started off doing office duties and eventually evolved into more of a program manager for the company. She would schedule energy audits, talk to homeowners about their home and get them excited about the whole entire process.
The one thing Martin didn’t expect was becoming as passionate and involved as she is now. “I really started deploying energy efficiency and it kind of just flourished into the career that I have now,” she said. “I’m kind of a New Hampshire sales representative.”
She works with different customers and contractors, whether that be architects or engineers, to explain the benefits of the New Hampshire Saves (NHSaves) program. Right now she is working with commercial, industrial and municipal customers.
Brown and Martin both said that certifications in the energy sector were very important to getting certain jobs, certifications that can require you to work for a certain number of years in the field and depend on your school degree. For example, Martin said that you typically need to be certified in energy auditing to perform energy audits on houses, a certification that Martin said was a good one. Another good certification, Martin said, was that of energy manager, which she hoped to soon become. Brown said she was originally going to get the Energy Manager certificate during the summer of 2020 but was unable to due to COVID-19.
Carleton Simpson, a UNH alumnus and regulatory attorney for Unitil, a utility company based out of Hampton, N.H., started his career as an electrical engineer and then went to law school at Suffolk University. Simpson said, “day to day, my responsibilities are representing the company in legal proceedings, regulatory proceedings, I work with state regulators, legislators, local officials and energy committees. I provide testimony, negotiate contracts and agreements with different market participants in the energy sector, help design rates, manage regulatory strategy for the company, help the company see what’s coming and how to best adapt.”
Simpson’s journey to his current job all started from his great experience at UNH back in 2008. When he was a student at UNH, he doubted whether electric cars would become popular. He said, “frankly, Tesla was kind of new, and there was a lot of doubt about whether it would survive and, and really, if electric vehicles would really ever take off, but I was very interested in electric vehicles. And my senior year, I did two things really, I took a survey class in energy engineering. And I decided to build an electric motorcycle as my senior project, senior thesis project, to complete my engineering degree.”
Simpson said he had a feeling that he liked energy but didn’t know exactly what to do in the field, he then decided to go to graduate school at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to study more about energy engineering and got his master’s degree in electrical engineering. He then realized after starting in an engineering role at Unitil that in the energy sector there were opportunities for somebody that had a technical background, but also a legal regulatory background. So he went to Suffolk Law School at night, commuted back and forth to Boston for four years, and got a legal degree in energy and environmental law.
Simpson said that while he also agreed certifications in the industry were important, he also suggested understanding the math in the industry. “I would encourage folks to try to take some sort of engineering, economics, energy economics class. Just to give yourself perspective on what orders of magnitude you’re looking at, when we talk about power, a lot of time, we talk about kilowatts, or megawatts or gigawatts, kilowatt hours,” he said, emphasizing that understanding the scale of power plants is very important.
“It’s a very unique space,” Simpson explained because the energy sector is still regulated by the US government. “For those that are, are very focused on policy, and legislative action, it’s a really great area to focus in. There’s always a lot that can be done, many different perspectives in the sector, and we need a lot of good advocates who understand the dimension of the issues that we face, both environmentally and operationally,” he said.
When asked about failures within the industry, Simpson said the industry can seem like it moves very slowly. He said, “I think that over the last really two to five years, we’ve seen significant change. And we’re going to see even greater change over the next five to 10 years due to decarbonization initiatives, and really working to transform our energy supply to renewable and decarbonize resources. One of the reasons why it moves so slowly is because it’s very expensive. Energy is very likely the most capital-intensive industry in the world.”
Brown said that to get your foot in the door, “your first job doesn’t have to be in energy, you can always develop that in your first job, because every single place you work is going to use electricity, it’s going to have printers, you’re going to have lights. And there’s always opportunity to become involved in saving that energy. So I think that’s a great way to start or build. I also recommend when you start looking for jobs, to join your community, like I joined my environment and Energy Committee. While I was working at my other job, because I was interested in energy, I was able to learn more about what my community was doing, and then become involved in that. And I literally built a job from that involvement. So, engaging your community.”
Martin mirrored what Brown said – that you don’t have to get a job in energy to start. “Since I started in 2014, I’ve had one job that wasn’t related to energy, but gave me a ton of experience. And I’m still using a lot of those skills in my job now. So, and the biggest thing, as Dorian mentioned, is just get involved,” Martin said.
Simpson said his advice to people looking to get into the field would be to go and learn what the assets and infrastructure looks like. He said, “you can’t really appreciate how the grid works until you been to an electric substation, until you’ve been to a solar facility and seeing how many panels there really are and the size of them, or that you’ve been to a generating station, or seen line crews rehang conductor from a storm where wires are down on the street, you gain a real appreciation for the business. And you see that it’s very physical, which is quite a contrast to when you think about electricity. It’s, it’s really a force in itself. It’s not a commodity like we think of like petroleum based fuels or water. It’s, it’s a force.”