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By Alexandra Branscombe
November 22, 2013
Caption : Courtesy of MIT.     Credit : Courtesy of MIT.

In 2009, two renewable technologies each won a prestigious R&D 100 Award for their innovation in very different ways: one was a biofuel, and the other was a engineering software application.

But these two award-winning innovations have even more in common than it may seem.

They were developed in the same Iowa State University laboratory, and they both represent the cumulating of federal funding, rigorous research, and high level education in renewable energy.

These patents represent just a couple in the immense database of renewable energy patents collected by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A recent study released by MIT show patents for renewable energy are rising sharply, in the U.S. and around the world. The authors point out that the rise of innovation is a result of private and federal investments into renewable energy research, exactly like the two Iowa State R&D awards.

Courtesy of MIT.

Courtesy of MIT.

Universities, companies, and the government are increasing incentives for this growing area of research, which has no sign of slowing down.

Sustainable Education At Colleges and Universities

Green jobs are increasing in nearly every imaginable field—teaching, computer science, manufacturing, and fashion.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected a 22 percent employment growth for environmental engineering by the year 2020, a career that earns a mean salary of $80,000. Solar jobs are rapidly increasing, particularly in states like California and Arizona. Solar panel manufacturing and installation are two of the hottest jobs in this category, while sales and marketing follow.

To fill these jobs, students are seeking the best education and training in these fields.

In the past decade, enrollment in environmental studies degrees has skyrocketed, and to keep up with this popularity, institutions are  enhancing environmental programs.

Indeed, the top degree programs in this field are rigorous and cross many curricula: covering sustainable business, agriculture, law, policy, ecology, and restoration. But students are looking for more than coursework—they want a sustainable experience.

Courtney McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Ohio University in Athens, OH, where she studied environmental biology. As an adventure-seeker, she did whatever she could to find a career path that allowed her to work outdoors. This in included a conservation-oriented study abroad trip to Brazil with Antioch Education Abroad, where she was able to do her own international research project on Brazilian beaches.

Courtney McLaughlin.

Courtney McLaughlin.

“I was fascinated by all the different ecosystems on the planet—I knew that dedicating my studies and my efforts toward protecting these areas was what I needed to do,” McLaughlin said. “Plus, a desk job sounded way too boring!”

For more students like McLaughlin, the Princeton Review has published The Princeton Review’s Guide to 322 Green Colleges in an effort to help students navigate the best environmental degrees and college lifestyles available. The fully comprehensive list examines the availability of organic food, bike sharing, certified LEED buildings, overall waste-diversion rate, and environmental programs the institution offers.

Graduate programs are also picking up with this trend, particularly in the STEM fields. Top post-graduate programs for renewable energy degrees in the country are in Michigan and California, which have the largest concentration of renewable energy schools, but at least 28 of the 50 states offer engineering or sustainable MBA’s at a higher education level.

Fritz Prehn is in the second year of his PhD program at the Colorado School of Mines, where he is studying how to make solar energy technology that is more accessible to the average American.

“Basically, it is in it’s early stages, but I want to make plastic solar cells that you can paint on your house, for example,” he said. “I want to make it cheaper because then people can buy it. I have always been interested in making solar energy cheaper.”

Fritz Prehn.

Fritz Prehn.

Through a fellowship at his school, Prehn’s tuition is paid while he does assistant teaching and lab work, but the majority of his time is spent making conductive polymers for applications in plastic solar cells. Most graduate programs offer funding for students pursuing STEM degrees, like Prehn, which is another incentive to begin a career in renewable innovation.

Making Investments

Before these students become experts that create sustainable patents, there is much time spent on the research as well as the investment in funding.

Probably the most well-known incentives are tax breaks. The federal government offers several tax-based policy incentives to stimulate wind, solar, hydraulic, and other renewables. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 established the Production Tax Credit (PTC), which gives tax credits to renewable energy facilities based on each kilowatt-hour of electricity they generate over a ten year period.

The more recent Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 extended tax credits to smaller wind-energy and geothermal systems. Even residential homes can get credit for solar, water, or fuel cell systems.

Tax breaks are a small part of the many ways green technology is being financed—in addition to grants, financial awards, and government programs that contribute financial aid and experience to Millennials.

AmeriCorps is one example of a program designed to support young people building a career in environmental jobs. During a year of intensive service, members can be placed with non-profits, schools, or government departments that are making a difference around the globe. AmeriCorps members are given a living allowance, health care, and loan deferment options.

This is where McLaughlin found her dream job in Kauai, HI. Through AmeriCorps, she is working as a wetland conservationist through the Division of Forestry and Wildlife in the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Her job is very hands-on, but she also has the opportunity to contribute performing surveys and data collection.

I absolutely love my job because I get to be outside all day, do work I feel good about, and see parts of this island that I never would if I didn’t work for the state,” she said. “Work doesn’t feel like work when you are counting goats from helicopters, kaiaking to find endangered Nene geese nests, or collecting seeds on a beautiful secluded beach.”

On the intensive research side, even more investments are being made to fuel technology innovation. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has developed several such programs focusing on renewable research, like the SunShot Initiative, which funds solar research, data collection, and cost reduction in order to help boost employment in the solar industry.

This year, the initiative announced $60 million in awards to advance solar grid integration. The top winners were data collection groups, which analyze energy production data from solar energy to help residents and companies find the best energy systems for their needs. A few winners, like Arizona State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, received financial aid to produce more efficient solar cell designs.

Finalizing Patents

Researchers from MIT and Santa Fe Institute (SFI) created a database of energy-related patents using keyword searches and have compiled more than 73,000 patents from over 100 different countries between 1970 and 2009.

From this vast database, co-authors Jessika Trancik (of MIT) and Luís Bettencourt (from SFI) could deduce statistical analysis and patterns in technology investment; they found a correlation between the rise in patents to prior investments in R&D and a growth in renewable energy technologies.

According to the study, the number of patents issued in the U.S. since 2004 have increased by an average of 13 percent each year—wind energy has increased by about 19 percent. For some context, the renewable energy patents in the U.S. grew from fewer than 200 per year in the years between 1975 to 2000, to more than 1,000 annually by 2009.

Conversely, fossil-fuel-related patents have only increased from about 100 per year to about 300 in the same time period.

In a press release, Trancik explains that this increase is directly related to the research investments done in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the result is the current patent boom.

“A lot of work was done in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of effort was put in, and we’re still benefitting from that,” Trancik said.

The research shows the global scale of these trends, that “gives you a view into innovation activity—who’s doing it, and where,” Trancik said.

Government investments, support in R&D, market growths, and industry involvement are all factors directly influencing the renewable technology explosion. Yes, new technologies require a lot of time, investment, and research in the early stages; however, the payoff has only just begun.

As sustainable technology surges forward, employers are looking for specialists in all fields. The country needs adventure seekers like McLaughlin, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty in the field, or spend their time in the laboratory like Prehn, who enjoy creating the next cutting-edge technologies.

The sustainable job market has endless opportunities for every imaginable professional: computer scientists and statisticians are needed to collect data and produce market information, biologists to do impact reports, hydrologists, geologists, policy writers, lawyers, and sustainable fashion designers. The fossil fuel era may not be over, but the trends show that renewable energy is on the rise, and looking for a new generation of experts.

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