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Working in physics: Rewards of renewables

Thanks to concerns about carbon emissions and the rising price of fossil fuels, the green-energy industry is currently experiencing huge growth worldwide. This presents plenty of interesting and lucrative opportunities for physicists, as Gregory McNamee describes.

The wind in your sails

In 1987 an American-style fridge freezer would use about 950 kW h of electricity and cost about $150 (£80) a year to run. Two decades on, a comparable appliance uses half the electricity and costs less than half as much to run. In 1975 there were about 3,780,000 cars on the streets of Los Angeles, whereas today there are more than 5,200,000 — yet air-pollution levels have fallen by half and an increasing number of those vehicles are hybrids or rely on renewable fuels like biodiesel. Last year, half a million homes in Southern California were receiving direct solar power, either from solar electricity plants or from rooftop photovoltaic panels.

These are changing times. Students, workers, consumers, business leaders and government officials are increasingly aware that we humans have been placing enormous stresses on the environment, as global warming, water shortages, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, and the dwindling supply of fossil fuels attest.

But in all times of trouble and uncertainty there are opportunities. People all over the world are increasingly realizing that we can bring the most important power of all to bear on the problem of where our power comes from — brain power. Physics graduates have an abundance of this eminently renewable resource and are skilled at problem-solving. Indeed, the world awaiting the class of 2008 and beyond is, for all its dark clouds, full of opportunities in almost every niche of the renewable-energy business.

According to the Environmental Business Journal, the green industry in the US in 2005 was worth about $265 bn and employed 1.6 million people. Green businesses in the country have been growing at a rate of about 5% annually since then. The All-Renewable Index (ARI), an economic gauge of activity in that sector, projects steady growth even as most other areas of the international economy would seem to be cooling, while business leaders throughout the alternative-energy sector are reporting that there are simply not enough educated applicants to fill the available jobs.

Earth, wind and fire
Although it contributes a comparatively small amount of energy to the present mix, the solar industry is growing in importance. Firms that specialize in photovoltaic research, such as Switzerland’s Unaxis and Germany’s Sulfurcell, report a need for clear-thinking problem-solvers to make ever more efficient systems. Condensed-matter and materials physicists are particularly sought after in this area. For example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy recently advertised a postdoctoral fellowship in photovoltaics, which was to be awarded to a recent physics PhD with “a strong background in ink-based materials, solution patterning, liquid processing and thin film deposition”. According to the Economics Research Institute, as of December 2007 a PhD physicist working in the solar-industry field could expect to earn an annual salary of about $80,000–$120,000.

As a comparatively new field, wind energy has not yet settled into easily defined career paths. As is true elsewhere in renewables, a technician is often expected to know something of the big picture, with an understanding of trends in the business and of promising research. A salesperson, similarly, needs at least a basic understanding of the technologies involved and of the challenges and benefits associated with, say, putting a wind turbine in place, while a technical writer will need to know about pretty much everything in the wind-power business, almost as much as a chief executive officer.

An engineer or physicist working in wind power certainly needs to have practical grounding in how a system that looks good on paper can be built and maintained without bringing the people who do that work to despair. In short, a successful career in wind energy is going to involve a little bit of everything. A person with wide-ranging interests and abilities will thrive in this new green-collar world, and physics is an ideal training ground — particularly since some of the major problems in the field lie in understanding the physics of moving air and its interaction with motors and turbines.

Similarly, well-rounded geophysicists are in great demand in the growing field of geothermal energy, and in the US can command annual salaries of up to $135,000. Countries such as Canada, Iceland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand have been at the forefront of geothermal development, but the industry is rapidly growing elsewhere, especially in the US and Scandinavia. Hydroelectric power and marine energy also offer many opportunities for physicists, along with some of the most vexing challenges — for example, no one has quite figured out how to harness the inexhaustible power of oceanic tides. The ideal candidate to solve that puzzle might hold a degree in physics and have a solid understanding of geophysics, mechanics, materials, aquatic biology, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, geology, mathematics and computer science — not necessarily all these fields, mind you, but at least a number of them in combination.

Premium rate
Nuclear energy, strictly speaking, is alternative but non-renewable. For many reasons it is also controversial. Still, it is part of the energy mix that is likely to become more important, at least in the near term, until other, truly renewable forms of energy production are brought on-stream. In the US alone, the nuclear industry will need at least 90,000 professionals in the next 10 years simply to replace retirees; France, Italy and several Eastern European nations project similar growth as their nuclear plants are revived or renovated, even as other European nations (particularly Germany and Spain) have committed to phasing out nuclear power. For the moment, it would appear that nuclear plants will continue to operate in the UK, with plentiful opportunities. Nuclear physicists are at a premium, with median annual earnings for those working in the US of $81,350 in 2007.

Hydrogen power is increasingly important, particularly in the automotive industry. A promising area of research is the use of photochemical molecular devices to produce hydrogen gas from water. Hydrogen power is also being used to provide building heat as well as electrical energy, in the UK at least. Research scientists within the field can expect salaries that begin at just over $51,000 and rise to about $100,000.

Physicists have every opportunity to flourish in the renewable-energy field, in these and in many other areas, including energy management, building design, “green transportation”, life-cycle engineering and energy education. As Scott Sklar, president of energy consultancy The Stella Group, notes: “The green industries are growing at an unforeseen rate, and they are concerned with meeting their growth potential.” Physicists can help them do so — and enjoy a seller’s market at the same time.

About the author
Gregory McNamee is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona. His latest book, Careers in Renewable Energy, was published by PixyJack Press earlier this year.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Jim Varney, Science Photo Library

last edited: September 11, 2018

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