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Get Energized: New Opportunities in Alternative Power

Our planet is getting warmer. Although it might sound like good news to those who like the beach better than the ski hill, it has very serious consequences.

Over the past 100 years, the Earth's average temperature has gone up about 1.3 F. Scientists predict this trend will continue.

The energy we use to run machines like cars and TVs, and to light and heat our homes, all burn fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources like oil, gas and coal, meaning they cannot be replaced. When we burn them, they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which scientists say contribute to global warming.

It's clear we need to change our power sources. But so far, the alternatives are expensive. Alternative energy researchers are trying to find new ways for natural resources to power our lives at lower costs. Natural renewable resources -- like wind, solar and geothermal power -- renew quickly and are cleaner alternatives.

But there aren't enough qualified people to work in the field of alternative energy, says Craig Dunn. He is president of WellDunn Consulting, a geological consulting firm for the energy industry. He says the demand for alternative energy is going to increase. Companies involved in alternative energy are going to keep growing. However, at the same time, the workforce is getting older.

Saving the Earth will require a new generation of researchers.

"I would suggest the engineers and scientists that are willing to venture into the youthful alternative energy industry will have skill sets that will put their services in demand in future," says Dunn.

What needs to be done?

"There are a lot of areas that need to be improved, from developing better technologies, to figuring out how to get that energy to the places it's needed," says Bonnie Jonkman. She is a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

"In the U.S. right now, there is an effort to increase wind energy to 20 percent of our total energy mix. To meet that goal, we will need more people working in this field."

Energy blowing in the wind

Wind turbines take energy out of thin air. The wind turns the blades of a turbine to generate electricity. Compared to other sources of renewable energy, the wind sector is fairly mature. The UNEP says money is pouring in to develop new technology, and to manufacture and sell it.

"Wind turbines are getting larger all the time (with rotors bigger than a Boeing 747), and the number of wind turbines being installed is increasing every year," says Jonkman.

"It will require a large workforce with a variety of skills to address the technical challenges and to meet the demand for more turbines. We need construction workers to erect wind turbines, maintenance workers to keep the turbines running, engineers and scientists to solve the design challenges, and politicians to develop sound policies."

Energy in plants

Biomass is plant matter grown for use as biofuel. Researchers in this area try to find out whether burning plant matter, such as corn and sugarcane, is better for the environment than burning traditional fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas.

Although energy can be harvested from corn, the method for doing so is inefficient. Alternative energy researchers must refine the method to make ethanol. It must become more efficient -- and less expensive -- before it can compete with gasoline as a fuel source.

Energy beaming down on us

Heat from the sun produces solar power. Photovoltaics is one device that can harness the sun's energy. The energy travels through an electrical circuit to power anything electronic -- from your calculator to your home.

Photovoltaics has been around since the 1970s. However, in the past decade, prices on solar power have dropped. Scientists hope the next generation of photovoltaics will keep shrinking the price-tag on solar energy.

Experts predict that in the next 10 years, alternative energy researchers will be able to cut the cost of solar energy to make it competitive with petroleum. Solar energy has the potential to meet the entire planet's electric and fuel needs. That's according to chemist Harry Gray in an article entitled, "Expert foresees 10 more years of R and D to make solar energy competitive."

Energy from the depths of the Earth

Geothermal energy is heat taken from far beneath our feet. Although the surface of the Earth is cool, the base of the Earth's crust is about 1800 F. This heat can be converted into renewable energy.

That's what Dunn works towards. "We are offering opportunities to improve and solutions for the next generation," he says. Research is the first step, he adds. He warns that newcomers to alternative energy need courage. Alternative energy is all about venturing into new research areas.

"There is a great deal of uncertainty in the energy industry in general and with emerging or alternative solutions. And there is no clear-cut solution for North America's energy needs. Continued education is fundamental to your work if you hope to stay ahead of the curve," says Dunn.

Energy flowing in rivers and oceans

Water is key to a few types of alternative energy. Hydroelectric power comes from moving water -- often a dammed river. The water drives a turbine and generator. This generates electricity. The flow of the river constantly renews the energy needed for hydroelectric power. That's why it's a "renewable" source.

Similarly, tidal power uses the natural energy from tides -- the rising and falling of sea levels. Also, waves create energy on the surface of the ocean. This energy is being captured too.

In the U.S., there is a lot of potential to develop more hydropower plants, according to the National Hydropower Association. It estimates that 5,400 sites could be developed. This would boost hydroelectric generation by more than 50 percent in the U.S.

There are always new technologies being developed to capture energy more efficiently and cost-effectively. Opportunities will flow to alternative energy researchers in the hydroelectric field.

Imagination is important

"I think [the alternative energy research field] is just going to get bigger. It's a growing job. The word 'green' is bigger than ever. You see it all over the news and in so many industries. It's a huge market," says Jay Gill. He is the national sales manager for Global Resource Corporation.

Global Resource is a petroleum research, engineering, development and manufacturing company. It discovered a way to use microwave technology to harness the energy in automobile tires to make oil and gas. Yep, that's right -- they zap old tires to create energy.

So the limits of alternative energy research are really only limited by researchers' imaginations. Ever dream of being a superhero? Alternative energy researchers work every day to save the world -- and they don't have to wear tights.


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