Mechanical Engineers should be Renewable Engineers

This is an updated post from my ongoing series on The Great Clean Tech Talent Gap, which I painfully experienced while trying to staff my growing renewable energy startup.

It has shocked me over the years how deep the shortage is of mechanical engineering skills in the renewable energy industry. When I say this, the first response is usually: “But renewable energy is related to power generation and electricity. Wouldn’t we need more electrical engineers?” NO! Wrong.

This widely-held belief — that energy-related topics fall mostly under Electrical Engineering (EE) — is harming the industry’s growth, hurting innovation, and are a lost opportunity for MechE professors to win research funding.

GE 600kW solar inverter. Height: 7’8″, Weight: 7000 lbs.
Contents: 25% Electrical Engineering. 75% Mechanical Engineering.

This topic is important because we need more U.S. students to become engineers…and once they decide to become engineers, we need them to specialize in areas where they’re most needed. Many students enter the field that they think will provide the best job prospects. When my classmates and I were picking our majors in college during the heat of the dot-com boom, everybody was flocking to EE and Computer Science (CS) departments. English majors were entering the CS department and suffering through three years of courses they hated in order to improve their job prospects. No wonder half of my EE and CS classmates went to Wall Street or other non-tech jobs after the bubble burst during our senior year.

My college degree says I’m an electrical engineer with a focus on embedded controls, which is heavily software-based. Through experience, however, I’m a power electronics engineer, embedded controls engineer, engineering manager, technical sales moonlighter, and entrepreneur. I believe this mixture has given me a good perspective on what training I was lacking despite attending one of the best engineering schools in the world and therefore had to teach to myself or supplement through hiring.

Research Funding

In the past five years, new research centers have been sprouting up on college campuses around the country, including the following. Note that this is not an exhaustive list, so if I’m missing one please send me the link. For a list of schools that have strong energy and power programs, see the end of this post.

Princeton’s center is headed by a MechE professor and MIT’s is headed by a physics professor. All others are spearheaded by EE departments. While the centers usually try to be cross-disciplinary, it’s difficult…professors are busy focusing on their own, ongoing research. With renewable energy depending so heavily on mechanical engineering skills, I believe these centers represent lost opportunities for funding really interesting and impactful MechE research. Improving the integration of the necessary disciplines presents opportunities for boosting the effectiveness of the government’s research dollars.

Examples of Renewable Engineering

(If you’re willing to take my word for it and aren’t interested in the technical details, then just skip to the end of the list below.)

Other than the obvious — like designing wind turbine blades and towers — here are some examples of the work that goes into designing some critical components within any renewable energy system. You’ll notice that they’re all taught in mechanical engineering departments.

  • Reliability under extreme conditions: One DOE manager told me that a major solar inverter manufacturer was providing sheepalong with their product. He was serious. The inverters were located in the middle of nowhere, so instead of mowing the lawn and having the grass clippings clog the ventilation intakes, the sheep took care of a major reliability and maintenance headache.Renewable  energy systems not only need to survive but they also need to continue operating optimally and safely under extremely hostile environmental conditions: in the baking sun, under strong winds, exposed to salt water spray, in downpours where the rain comes in horizontally, under condensing humidity, subjected to lightning strikes, and in grimy industrial environments. They need to do this, ideally, for 20 years with only nominal maintenance and minimal degradation of performance. We need MechE’s!
  • Control Theory and Modeling/Simulation: I haven’t seen a single renewable energy system that isn’t saddled with control problems. Power converters require control of their switch trigger timings. Motors and generators require specialized controls, which vary widely based on how they’re constructed. The grid as a whole requires complex distributed controls to remain stable. Wind turbines require controls for the pitch of their blades to maximize energy capture and other critical controls to make sure they don’t fly apart during a grid outage. Even stationary hardware like PV panels and batteries require max power tracking and charging/discharging controls, respectively. Smart grid components such as thermostats require controls. The list is endless. Control theory courses are usually taught in the MechE department.In dot-com product development, if your code fails then just reboot your crashed computer. In renewable energy development, if your code fails then your hardware blows up, you lose thousands of dollars, and someone could get injured. Renewable energy equipment is so large, expensive, and energetic that systems must be modeled and simulated long before anything is built. We need people who can perform these simulations in a realistically yet efficiently.
  • Mechanics (mounting heavy components, designing for shock & vibration): Power equipment is heavy (minimum of 20-100 lbs for residential, 500-2000 lbs for commercial installations, and much higher for industrial utility-scale systems). For these heavy components, mounting considerations and shock and vibration stresses during transport are incredibly important. I’ve seen several pieces of hardware (typically $5,000 to $20,000 apiece) get destroyed in transit due to overlooked mechanical design considerations.
  • Enclosure / packaging design: Between 25-44% of a solar installation is the “balance of system” cost (mostly mounting hardware) and installation labor. The high-tech solar panels are only 50% of the cost. MechE’s have the same potential to reduce the cost of solar installations as the well-funded photovoltaic cell researchers receiving billions of dollars in government and VC funding. The large size of renewable energy systems drives materials cost, manufacturing labor, inventory  overhead, shipping costs, and installation costs. In most cases, a MechE needs to figure out how to pack 2 pounds of stuff in a 1 pound bag or how to assemble things faster.

  • Magnetics: Motors, generators, inductors, and transformers are all examples of magnetics. Several magnetic components are found in every single solar, wind, electric vehicle, and power distribution box. I’ve seen that MechE’s are the best at the 3-dimensional visualization of the cores, windings, and magnetic flux lines, which is necessary in doing the magnetics design. This is a lost art and I can count on two hands the number of engineers I’ve encountered who are good magnetics designers. If you want job security, teach yourself magnetics design.
  • Thermodynamics (thermal and airflow design): This is a huge topic and a huge challenge. To put it in perspective with one example: an industrial-scale solar inverter dissipates in losses the same amount that 2 to 4 homes consume. All that power needs to be dissipated out of just six brick-sized components. Doing that without overheating anything…over a period of 10-20 years…is a huge mechanical engineering challenge.
  • Rotating machinery: Many renewable energy systems, most energy efficiency improvements, and all electric vehicle systems include a rotating machine like a motor or generator. I’ve run into the problem way too many times of having an EE who doesn’t understand how the machine works and a MechE who doesn’t know how the power system works…and the two don’t speak the same engineering “language.”
  • Materials: Capacitors are designed by chemists and physicists, but their reliability and cost are determined by the MechE who packages them. Batteries are designed by chemists, but MechE’s make the packaging safe. They also make sure the materials inside every type of renewable energy system don’t corrode under salty, humid, or high-voltage conditions.

We need more renewable engineers with mechanical engineering skills!

Tear Down the Silos

It’s risky for me to make such broad generalizations. Someone can easily say “XYZ skill is purely EE or chemistry” or “the best engineers are cross-disciplinary.” I recently visited MIT and spoke with a computer science professor. He knew virtually no EE professors and referred to the various departments as “silos,” with little interaction between them. From my own experience, I know that undergrad education doesn’t cross disciplines very frequently…after taking their electives, students typically need to focus the majority of their course load on their specific major. Freshman be forewarned: if you know which industry you want to enter, you need to make sure you get the appropriate mix of classes, regardless of how the departments and curriculum are structured.

As for the research centers…from the outside it seems that MechE professors are not seizing on the opportunity to become the leaders in renewable energy research and education. Maybe the issue is that MechE departments have focused on airfoils and engines for so long that it’s difficult to jump into this 21st-century industry which also requires EE skills as well. Maybe this is a sign that the traditional divisions between MechE and EE are outdated.

Regardless of the reason, if universities want to become leaders in renewable energy research and want to create the highest-performing engineers in this hot field, then topics that have traditionally been taught in the mechanical engineering department need to become requirements for anyone interested in renewable energy.

Update:

I’ve received some interesting responses to this post, especially the following from Yogesh Nama:

Erik, There is no shortage of mechanical engineer. How many do you want?? Most of recruiters in the US and UK simply do not bother to look at the CV properly. They simply run a search for a keyword. If it’s not in the resume then the candidate isn’t considered for the job.

In this post I tried to make the argument that either (a) we need more mechanical engineers with an inclination towards working in renewable energy and the necessary additional skills to work on renewable engineering technologies or (b) we need to cross-train EEs in traditional mechanical engineering skills. I’m sure there are plenty of MechE’s being trained with the skills necessary to work at Ford or Boeing…and enough EE’s with the skills to work at Intel…but very few with the necessary mixture of skills to excel in renewable energy work.

Renewable energy engineers don’t just need the standard materials, mechanics, and thermodynamics training necessary to build airplanes and cars…they need slightly broader training. If they did have that training, I believe they would be the best for most clean tech engineering jobs.

As for the comment about keywords on resumes…I completely agree.  Reviewing resumes that are receive “over the transom” for keywords and just spending one hour interviewing someone results in poor hiring results. References and working with someone on a trial basis are the only way to know for sure whether a person is a good fit for the position and the company’s culture.

Image credit: GE. Found here.
Chart credit: John Lushetsky, Dept. of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Program. Found here.

About these ads

28 responses to “Mechanical Engineers should be Renewable Engineers

  1. You are so right. You get a degree to get a job. To be the top notch engineer, the major ingredient is Physics. It covers all disciplines. In Physics you are exposed to all disciplines, mechanical, electrical, magnetics, and thermal. A BA-degree in physics or engineering only opens up the job opportunities. The learning is provided on the job by the teaching of seasoned engineers and continued education on your own or in classes.
    This paper makes students aware not to specialize too early and take full advantage of all the courses our fine universities offer.

  2. This problem is complicated by real world job availability. Renewable energy has had ups and downs in popularity over the decades, and happens to be on an upswing right now. Very few engineers (of any discipline) have been able to keep renewable energy related jobs long enough to gain the experience required by today’s employers. Short-sighted HR, and some hiring managers, ignore or do not recognize transferrable skills. They also downplay experience and self-teaching that many candidates achieve on their own, without considering that the few college programs now available in renewable energy topics have only become recently available, and are not accessible in a practical way to engineers (or would-be engineers) that also have a family to support. Finally, many of these start-ups sorely hurt for talent, experience and budget so they expect too much from individuals. What is usually considered a team effort (mechanical + electrical + software + power engineers) is expected to be covered by one hire. If such a super-engineer was available, I doubt that the company could afford him.

    There is no shortage of engineers. There are thousands of them unemployed or underemployed. But there is a shortage of engineers who are willing to work cheaply and get jerked around, while possessing the education and experience mix flavor of the day. Not saying that you are doing this at your company, but many of these renewable energy start-ups have unrealistic expectations. Yet they blame their problems upon the very people (available engineers) that they expect to make their companies viable.

  3. Pingback: Mechanical Engineers should be Renewable Engineers « Energy.BlogNotions - Thoughts from Industry Experts

  4. William Ketel

    Ferd is totally correct in his final paragraph. There are lots of good engineers around who are not masters of embedded systems or IC design. All systems are just lines on paper until they are built, and the physical realization of the hardware does need some mechanical expertise. Unfortunately there does not seem to be any respect for we who have taken the effort to independently gain mechanical design skills . The mechanical aspect is even more important in the renewable energy area because this field needs to demonstrate reliability and maintain credibility. So really, ALL engineers should have a better understanding of the physics and kinematics of systems.

    • Ferd and William,

      Thanks for your feedback. In my experience, an engineer needs one or two projects under his belt in a new area before he’s proficient (myself included). During those first couple projects, all the usual mistakes are made as the engineer climbs the learning curve. As an entrepreneur, I always had difficulty “funding” that learning curve. The engineering mistakes (or non-optimal designs) cost money, time, and potentially follow-on opportunites — all of which are in precious short supply in a startup business. Because our engineering staff wasn’t that large, we also didn’t have many more experienced people with available bandwidth to mentor others in a new skill. Lastly, when I hired someone I usually didn’t have the benefit of having worked with them in the past — even though they were confident they could teach themselves new skills, I didn’t have anything to confirm that.

      For all these reason I was always forced to look not for a “super engineer” but for a “jack of all trades.” I needed an engineer who had already climbed the learning curve and had done it on somebody else’s dime. Frequently, however, I waited too long to fill a position and probably would have been better served just hiring an energetic guy on day one, who could have taught himself the needed skills.

      I don’t think this is “expecting too much.” I hired this way with the expectation that I would stick by my employees and that they would stick by me. Once the “exit” came, everyone would be financially rewarded…and we would work through some interesting new engineering challenges along the way. I agree that many early-stage companies drain their employee equity pool, are stingy with equity, or don’t communicate well to the employees what the upside potential is.

      In the end, startups — for better or worse — need people who can wear many hats. Those engineers who want to work on a more focused set of engineering tasks are likely better suited to work in a larger organization.

  5. Pingback: Silicon Carbide: Promising Technology on the Precipice | Entrepreneurial Energy

  6. Pingback: Silicon Carbide: Promising Technology on the Precipice « Energy.BlogNotions - Thoughts from Industry Experts

  7. What about mechatronic engineers? Do you think they can handle the situation?

  8. I’m a mechanical engineer busting my ass trying to get an renewable energy opportunity. I am a motivated self starter with a good head on my shoulders. I might not have a lot of experience but have yet to be given an opportunity after 2.5 years since graduating. You must invest in people and let them grow with the company if you want great results. To think otherwise is ignorance.

    • John,
      I’m sorry to hear about your challenges. If you have a mechanical engineering degree and also have exposure to electronics, you should be well positioned. Of course, certain areas of the country have better opportunities than others in clean tech. The top four on my list are (1) Silicon Valley, (2) Boston, (3) Boulder, (4) Austin. Best of luck in your search.
      Erik

  9. Mechatronics?

  10. I’m due to start my undergraduate study this year and am facing a dilemma in choosing course to pursue. I have a lot of passions for renewable energy. Question is, which course would best train me as an engineer required by this field? Mechanical engineer or electrical engineer? ( Mechatronic engineering course is not available in the university I am going to study at. )

    Thanks for your help.

    • There’s no single right answer. Pursue whichever subject interests you more. You’re more likely to excel at the subject you really enjoy than the subject you force yourself into.

  11. Erik, thank you for your early reply. One more question though, if I take up Mechanical Engineering course, would I be qualified to service in the field of renewable energy? As you have stated in your post, conventional wisdom is that Electrical Engineers are the one who suit the job perfectly, not Mechanical Engineer. I’m worry that I would end up holding a Mechanical Engineering degree without a job opportunity in this field. Or is it that Mechatronic Engineers are more well-positioned and have more job opportunity in this field compared to Mechanical Engineers?

    Thank you for your help.

  12. I’m last year’s mechanical engineering graduate and have to mention that within mechanical engineering curriculum (at least at my school) were classes that provided some exposure to electrical field: circuits, control loops, dynamic systems and signal processing (LabVIEW, Simulink and MATLAB), and instrumentation. I’m working as an ME at the moment but considering a position of controls engineer, to get even more exposure and more “cross-training” to become a more-rounded engineer.

  13. I’m an ME but the EE topics completely fell by the wayside for me. It is too difficult to become proficient in many different areas — that is why there should be a team of EE+ME+CE. My current job is a combination of structural+mechanical+manufacturing. It is an odd job and I had to learn everything from the ground up. (We make composites and I actually do a lot of load calculations involving solar panels with huge EPAs, EEs often don’t understand why i don’t care how much their solar contraption weighs, I want to know what SIZE is it? for wind loading!)

    Our engineering manager is retiring after 30 years, and HR is busy looking for a replacement. It looks absolutely impossible to find a replacement that has the combination of mechanical aptitude + PE license + structural experience +materials engineering + manufacturing experience.

    He got that way through 30 years on the job, and I’m frantically trying to learn everything I can from him because when he’s gone there will be no one to teach me. I wouldn’t spend my time trying to get into renewable energy startups — the time frame isn’t long enough, the jobs are scarce, the industry has a reputation for building stuff that doesn’t work and is too expensive, and our time is better spent elsewhere so we can feed our families. My uncle is an ME and works in solar energy in CA – he’s never had what I would call “steady work”. It takes a unique individual to want that lifestyle.

    This is an interesting conundrum.

  14. Reblogged this on This is Kshitiz Khanal and commented:
    Exactly!

  15. Heya i’m for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It really useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to present something back and help others like you helped me.

  16. If you are going for most excellent contents like myself,
    just go to see this website everyday as it gives feature
    contents, thanks

  17. Hi! I’m currently trying to decide which career path to follow, between Mechanical Engineering and Mechatronics engineering. I want to hopefully work to a masters in Sustainable energy…? Which path do you think has better job prospects and/or Better to do??

  18. I would like to work in the renewable energy industry and recently began taking classes in an engineering technology program but haven’t yet chosen a concentration. I’m interested in both mechanical and electrical engineering but am disinclined to spend the time necessary for a double major. I’m convinced, however, that it would be best to have at least some knowledge of both fields. So, it seems that the best solution would be to major in one and minor in the other. Which do you feel would be the more practical route: major in EE and minor in ME; or major in ME and minor in EE?

  19. I would like to work in the renewable energy industy. I have worked in the industrial maintenance field , specificaly cnc machinery repair and modifications. for over 20 years. About 2 years ago i went back to school to finish my BSME. does anyone know of a company looking for experienced personnel like myself. I would like to find a company that i can transistion from maintenance to engineering.

  20. please advice me
    i just cant choose any topic to register it as a MASTER thesis
    please help me with some topics

  21. I love planet earth! Anyone hiring BSME’s? Because I apply to about 100 engineering jobs every week. Boston University’s program is ranked 51 in the U.S.

    • Matt, it seems to me that you should try focusing more on “quality” over “quantity” in your job search. Figure out a short list of companies you *really* want to work for; do your homework on those companies, their needs, and their organizational structure; and then work to get in contact with and make a great first impression on the right managers in those companies. A scattershot approach of “100 jobs every week” may land you a lucky break…but don’t count on it.

  22. I am currently in an undergraduate MechE program at Lehigh University and planning on taking advantage of the Energy Engineering minor in the department as well; this article made me excited on pursuing my degree. Would this set me up well for a career in renewable energy or would an electrical/computer science minor be more useful?

    • Ethan,

      Both Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering are “useful,” and especially if you specialize in the right areas. For mechanical engineering, I listed some of those areas of specialization in my blog post. As you develop your course plan, make sure to get a good background in thermal engineering, control theory, and materials.

      All the best, Erik

      On Sun, Mar 30, 2014 at 2:51 PM, Entrepreneurial Energy wrote:

      >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s