Demand for geothermal energy specialists booms as sector bounces back
Geothermal energy job demand is growing as the move to renewables picks up pace. Find out what this means for access to skills in our latest blog.
It may have taken a while, but the growth of, and demand for, renewable energy seems to once again be gaining significant traction in the wider world, not least in the USA. Geothermal has been a hot topic within energy circles for decades since its emergence in the 1970s, and more extreme weather and rising energy costs have once again pushed it to the forefront of mainstream discussion within the industry in recent years. However, there is already a notable shortage of renewable specialists and the lack of available talent is felt even more acutely in newer growth areas. But what is the future of geothermal energy and what could it mean for demand for specialists in this and its interconnected fields?
Geothermal job growth
Geothermal is one of the oldest forms of clean and renewable energy, but it’s experiencing something of a resurgence at the moment, particularly in the USA, as a result of a number of factors, not least a boost in funding along with significant advances in technology and renewed interest from the oil drilling industry. As most readers will likely know, the provision of geothermal energy refers to the extraction of heat energy from below the Earth’s crust and involves tapping into reservoirs of hot water that are brought to the surface to generate electricity and for heating and cooling. Most of the United States’ reservoirs are located in the West, but the emergence of potential new technology could also expand its use into new geographies and territories across suitable areas of the world.
It is still early days, however experts are saying that, by 2050, the sector could see a 15-fold increase in energy output from current levels, moving from the 3.7 Gigawatt capacity it currently provides in the US, up to 60GW, which would provide a significant chunk of the country’s energy requirements. Job growth has already been noted, with a study led by the Internal Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) finding that the number of roles in the geothermal field had nearly doubled since 2012.
Evolution of geothermal energy
Geothermal energy boomed in the 1970s, however it dropped off in the following years as funding dried up and public interest pivoted to other areas of the renewable energy arena. It now seems as if the geothermal stars are aligning due to the aforementioned growth in funding and perhaps most notably, the support of the US government. The Biden administration is pushing traditional oil and gas extraction firms to look seriously at geothermal and energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm has described the field as a ‘favourite topic’ of hers. With the involvement of more traditional energy firms – who naturally have extensive experience of drilling and extracting energy from underground – it appears that the industry could be set for significant growth. During a recent meeting of the National Petroleum Council, Granholm told oil executives,
“I know you manage [carbon] molecules, but you can manage a lot of things. Think: You drill holes, too. You go beneath the surface, you know where things are. And fracking really opens up a huge opportunity for enhanced geothermal.”
The US is certainly the market leader for the time being and is incentivising growth in the field by offering companies that invest in geothermal projects a 30% tax credit under the Inflation Reduction Act, with a further 10% available for projects delivered in ‘energy communities’, including areas where coal mines have been closed or those that have been historically reliant on fossil fuel extraction and/or processing. The Energy Department has also set targets to cut costs on enhanced geothermal systems and is looking into the potential of utilising former oil and gas wells for extraction, which could lead to even further growth.
This is obviously fantastic news for the renewables sector, however it does create significant challenges when it comes to staffing. While the sector was well stocked with engineering specialists in the 1970s, like an oil well, it’s not easy to simply turn the tap on and off, and in order to meet the growing demand, professionals need to be identified, trained and deployed, which can take time. In fact, the one element holding back even further growth in the sector is the lack of available talent, not just those directly involved with the extraction and exploitation of geothermal energy, but also those involved in the construction and ongoing maintenance of drilling sites. Different skills are required for each of the stages of the process, from exploration, through to feasibility drilling and onto the ongoing production of the energy itself. However, a number of engineering-related skills are consistently required across the board, including STEM expertise, project management competencies and strong communication abilities. These are skills sought after across a range of fields, not just in the energy sector, and it would probably be fair to say that geothermal producers need to promote the range of opportunities available in the industry more effectively than they have historically done.
The future of geothermal energy
The sector provides fantastic opportunities for engineers looking to operate in the renewable industry and it’s likely that, as growth in the sector continues, more specialists will be attracted to operate here. In the meantime, and in order to plug the talent gap, employers are looking to recruit from other markets and are taking on professionals from more traditional energy markets, luring those with the promise of working in more ‘public-friendly’ roles than they may historically have done. This may enable them to temporarily meet the growing demand, however in the long run, more effective talent pipelines will need to be established if the sector is to continue to grow.
From an engineering perspective, working in the geothermal industry provides a fantastic opportunity to take on engaging and potentially lucrative roles and, with the establishment of better infrastructure and funding channels, growth is only set to continue. If you’re interested in working in one of the real growth-markets within the energy sector, then you shouldn’t look much further than geothermal.
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