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Sustainable energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, with no signs of slowing down. People who want to enter this exciting career field will first need to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to make a positive contribution.
Fortunately, universities across the country are meeting the need for qualified sustainable energy professionals by developing bachelor’s in sustainable energy degree programs. Here, you will learn about this growing industry as well as details about some of the top sustainable energy programs in the U.S.
After reading this guide, you will have a greater understanding of sustainable energy degree programs, allowing you to further research and choose the university that works best for your education and career goals. Skip to the end of the guide for our directory of sustainable energy degree programs.
- Sustainable energy is defined as sources that can fulfill our current energy needs without compromising future generations. That’s why there has been a strong push for experts who can improve the sustainability of renewable sources.
- No two bachelor’s programs in sustainable energy are alike. Some degrees in our listings focus on engineering or environmental science; others concentrate on business, policy, and energy management.
- Sustainable energy is an emerging discipline, so it pays to do your homework on career paths. Qualified energy & sustainability analysts can earn $100k or more, but they often have practical experience in the field.
What Is Sustainable Energy?
Johns Hopkins University provides an excellent primer on sustainable energy, defining it as energy that “is derived from resources that can maintain current operations without jeopardizing the energy needs or climate of future generations.” The most common types of sustainable energy are solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower.
The term is often used interchangeably with renewable energy, but there are several critical differences. Again from Johns Hopkins, renewable energy “comes from sources that naturally renew themselves at a rate that allows us to meet our energy needs.” There is some overlap in renewable and sustainable energy, and although not all renewable energy is sustainable, there have been strong efforts to improve the sustainability of renewable energy sources, which can lead to considerable environmental benefits.
Sustainable energy has become a critical talking point in both the media and policy debates, with key questions remaining about how to best use the different technologies. For example, because wind energy relies on changes in air temperature, there is no best practice for harnessing that power to sustainably provide energy in certain areas of the country.
Because of the excitement, as well as the intrigue, surrounding sustainable energy, the need for energy professionals is greater today than ever. With proper training and foundational knowledge of the creation, distribution, and consumption of sustainable energy, those who enter the field now will be on the leading edge of the industry, with the potential to usher in new energy breakthroughs that create long-lasting benefits.
What Is a Sustainable Energy Degree?
A bachelor’s degree in sustainable energy prepares students for several different career paths. In general, the degree program provides students with knowledge and hands-on experience to impact the future of sustainable energy, helping them understand the geographical, economic, technical, and political components of the industry.
Although all sustainable energy degree programs deliver a broad overview of the industry, prospective students will want to research programs for their specific course offerings. Depending on which program they choose, students will be well prepared to enter careers in energy production, engineering, regional planning, or policy.
While the cost to earn a bachelor’s in sustainable energy will vary from state to state, the Education Data Initiative released its most recent statistics on tuition, with total costs ranging from $25K to just over $100K at a four-year, public university. To help offset total costs, most universities offer financial aid packages, including scholarships, grants, and student loans.
Types of Sustainable Energy Degrees
Students with an interest in sustainable energy will find a variety of educational tracks at both private and public universities. Each program is designed to provide graduates with a core understanding of sustainable energy while helping them specialize in a specific career field.
Illinois State University offers a major in Sustainable and Renewable Energy, “the first interdisciplinary Renewable Energy major in the United States.” Students learn to successfully address social, economic, and technical sustainability issues, with graduates entering careers such as wind farm site managers, photovoltaic manufacturers, government researchers, and policy analysts.
At UNC Charlotte, the BS in Construction Management includes a concentration in Applied Energy and Sustainable Systems. In addition to foundational coursework, all students are required to complete experiential learning courses, with hands-on research and project opportunities at the state-of-the-art Energy Production and Infrastructure Center.
For students with an interest in business, SUNY ESF offers a BS in Sustainable Energy Management, while Unity College provides a BS in Sustainable Business Management with a concentration in Renewable Energy. Both schools prepare students for careers in management through experiential learning.
Penn State University equips its graduates for careers that will shape the future of energy policy with their BS in Energy and Sustainability Policy. This interdisciplinary program readies graduates for their careers with five core components: energy industry knowledge, a sustainability ethic, analytical skills, communication skills, and a global perspective.
What Will You Learn in a Sustainable Energy Degree Program?
A bachelor’s in sustainable energy prepares students to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing our world today. Specifically, students learn the nuances of the energy industry, the science behind creating energy systems, how to harness sustainable energy while making it accessible to end users, and the government and economic factors that influence its widespread use.
Students can expect to take foundational courses in upper-division math, sciences such as physics and chemistry, and communication. These courses are typically completed in the first two years before students begin to specialize in their area of interest.
For some, this will mean continuing in the sciences, learning to engineer energy systems and create more efficient ways of capturing and producing sustainable energy. For others, they will apply sustainable energy principles to business, leading to careers as analysts and sustainability managers. Others will focus on policy, allowing them to work with both government agencies and NGOs to ensure the safe and equitable use of sustainable energy around the world.
Sustainable Energy Coursework
Each sustainable energy program offers a unique set of coursework, combining theory, hands-on practice, research, and real-world work opportunities. After completing foundational courses, students will have the chance to expand their knowledge while focusing on their specialization.
University of Wisconsin Platteville offers a BS in Sustainability and Renewable Energy Systems, emphasizing research, real-world projects, and career opportunities immediately following graduation. Every senior is required to complete a design project with an industry client. Specialized coursework includes Wind and Solar Systems Design, Building Energy Management, and Sustainability Policy and Practice.
North Carolina State University’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering offers a BS in Chemical Engineering with a concentration in Sustainability Engineering, Energy, and the Environment. The program places a heavy emphasis on the science and engineering underpinnings of sustainable energy, with students taking several semesters of calculus and physics before advancing to specialized coursework, including Thermodynamics of Chemical and Phase Equilibria, Design and Analysis of Chemical Reactors, and Chemical Engineering Design.
At Stockton University, students can earn a BS in Sustainability with a concentration in Energy, preparing graduates for careers in science, policy, economics, and ecology. All students begin with a core curriculum that includes courses in ecology, policy and law, ecological economics, and two semesters of calculus and physics. From there, students advance to higher-level courses such as Sustainable Technology, Sustainable Design, and Energy Management. Stockton University also offers many hands-on learning opportunities through electives, including Green Vehicle Technology, Geographic Information Systems, and Energy Planning.
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania offers a Bachelors in Business, Energy, Environment, and Sustainability, preparing its graduates to combine the emerging field of sustainable energy with business management best practices. Graduates from Wharton often enter careers in “energy companies, clean-tech investing, energy banking, consulting, the nonprofit world, and the government.”
At Wharton, students complete interdisciplinary coursework that includes Energy Finance; Environmental Management: Law and Policy; Climate Policy and Technology; Corporate Sustainability Strategies; and The Future of Water.
What Can You Do with a Sustainable Energy Degree?
The job outlook is strong for graduates with a degree in sustainable energy. While demand for traditional energy (oil and coal) has dramatically decreased in recent years, demand for sustainable energy continues to grow.
Because sustainable energy remains an emerging field, the demand for skilled workers has far outpaced the number of qualified professionals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs in wind and solar energy will be among the fastest-growing sectors in the next decade, while a recent report from the NREL reveals that the wind energy industry alone is desperate for skilled professionals to meet growing demand.
The US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is also seeking skilled graduates to join their workforce, with many clean energy jobs currently available in Washington, D.C., and other locations around the country. The EERE is committed to growing its workforce to “accelerate the nation’s transition to 100% clean energy.”
Energy companies and government agencies, however, are not the only ones searching for talented graduates to join their workforce. Tech giants such as Apple have ambitious climate goals over the next decade, requiring the support of energy and sustainability analysts who can guide the company in the right direction. According to recent salary statistics, sustainability and energy analysts can expect high-paying and rewarding positions following graduation, with a median salary of approximately $70-80K.