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Environmental Engineering vs. Renewable Energy

nstanniknstannik Registered User Posts: 12 New Member
edited March 2013 in Engineering Majors
Hi everyone! I'm approaching my senior year in high school and have started the daunting college search, but could use some advice.

I definitely want to do something environment-related, specifically alternative energy design/installation/planning. I'm especially passionate about wind and solar power. I've done a little bit of research, and it seems that a few schools have recently (past 2-3 years) started offering degrees in renewable energy. The three biggest are Illinois State University, Oregon Institute of Technology, and Arizona State University. As far as I know, there are no masters programs yet, although I could be wrong.

These are pretty decent schools, but I know I can do better if I decide to go into environmental engineering instead, hence the hard decision. Basically, environmental engineering would give me a larger choice of schools, but I'm afraid it might limit my career choice/path later.

Also, since these programs are pretty new, there isn't much info out there on them. It seems to me that most of these programs are more geared toward the installation and construction part of renewable energy, and I'd rather focus on the broader picture of implementation, planning, design, AND installation. I think this would be more meaningful (and better-paying). Can anyone confirm or refute this?

My question is this: considering I want to go into the renewable energy sector, does it make more sense to major in renewable energy or environmental engineering? Will environmental engineering be too far removed from renewables? Will renewables be too specific if I decide to branch out in the future?

Feel free to contact me for any clarification. Any input is appreciated!

Post edited by nstannik on

Replies to: Environmental Engineering vs. Renewable Energy

  • aibarraibarr Registered User Posts: 4,249 Senior Member
    If you want to focus on energy systems, you might want to look into electrical engineering instead.

    One of my friends is a wind power engineer, and he majored in electrical engineering. Solar cells would be produced by electrical engineers, as well. "Environmental engineering" is more about dealing with hazardous waste and keeping air and water pollution under control, and is more biology/chemistry related.

    If you want to deal with renewable energy, it might just be better for you to dive right into the more energy-production related fields like electrical engineering, and then just self-select the firms you apply to.

    The more "designer fields" like renewable energy majors may get you a degree that no employer really knows what to do with, and it might actually make it *more* difficult to find jobs, than going with a traditional engineering field where your more employer-predictable skill set can be used in new, more environmentally-friendly ways. You're right... it sounds like those fields are more about policy than about actual design of new, green ways of harvesting energy.

    Best of luck!
  • lowendnewbielowendnewbie Registered User Posts: 264 Junior Member
    I'm a junior in environmental engineering which means...i could answer your questions in a year. Thats when i start the hardcore enve classes. I too am interested in renewable energy.
    From what I know, I'd say its best to go into chem eng. for renewable energy. That being said, I've had interviews for renewable energy jobs and there were many other renewable energy jobs that were looking for enve student. I applied but wasn't selected for an interview :(
  • nstanniknstannik Registered User Posts: 12 New Member
    Wow, thanks for the great replies!! I'm starting to think that the newer "renewable energy systems" programs are still too new and unknown to take a shot at, but I'm still not sure what to do otherwise.

    I think the very fine line I'm walking right now is wanting very much to get involved with renewables, but not limit other career choices or delve into something too specific/technical. From the posts here (and some Google searches) it looks like electrical/chemical engineering would almost guarantee a job in renewables, but wouldn't leave so many other environment-related options if I want to branch out. On the other hand, I'm not sure environmental engineering would be as much of a guarantee to work with renewables.

    To respond to airbarr's post: I think you're right about the policy vs. design aspect, but here, again, I'm not sure which I prefer. I don't just want to sit in an office making policy, but I don't want to work only with construction and design either. Ideally, I'd like some mix of the two, although maybe this is too much to ask.

    Basically, I'm more into the environmental part of environmental engineering than I am into the engineering part, which is why electrical/civil/chemical engineering don't appeal much to me. However, I'd also like to be involved in some design/planning, and I think environmental science as a major is too general for a field this technical, hence studying engineering at all.

    lowendnewbie, could you tell me more about the jobs you applied for related to renewables? What aspect of renewable energy requires environmental engineers, if any? Do you know if there is any major outside of engineering that is desirable in the renewables industry?

    Thanks for the replies, and any input is appreciated!!
  • RacinReaverRacinReaver Registered User Posts: 6,608 Senior Member
    Have you thought about trying to find programs which offer "Green Chemistry"? They emphasize finding new ways to make chemicals, except in a much more environmentally friendly and efficient way. It's not quite renewable energy like wind/solar, but it's still pretty involved in environmental issues.
  • nstanniknstannik Registered User Posts: 12 New Member
    RacinReaver, I've considered a lot of environmental programs (including "green chemistry") but I'm most interested in environmental engineering for a few reasons.

    First, I think that the most environmental good I can contribute to would be an improvement in how we produce energy. Although we do need to change other aspects of our society like the chemicals we use, cars we drive, and our consumption habits, nothing is going to change without new forms of energy.

    Career opportunities also play a role. I think that with environmental engineering, if I don't get my ideal job I can still do pollution control, wastewater treatment, etc. But in any form of chemistry, it's more black and white. If you don't get a "green" chemistry job, you're forced to work for pharmas, traditional chemistry companies, etc., which is something I definitely don't want to do.
  • britbrat1961britbrat1961 Registered User Posts: 474 Member
    nstanik. My son is in the EXACT same predicament. We are going to visit several school next month and will ask the specific questions and bring feedback. I dont know if any of these are on your radar, but we are going to....

    Univ. of Michigan
    Penn State U.
    Syracuse U.
    Unv. of Colorado Boulder
    Univ. of California San Diego
    Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
  • tahncol86tahncol86 Registered User Posts: 224 Junior Member
    I am a nuclear engineer entering graduate school next semester. Currently, I am researching on small nuclear reactors for remote areas and developing countries. As I enter graduate school, I am planning to pursue a Energy Policy & Analysis certificate along with a MS Nuclear Engineering Degree.

    I am interested on energy consulting with a mix of nuclear and renewable energy for developing countries. My fall back plan is a job in the nuclear industry, hopefully.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that renewable energy is not too specific, and will give you lots of job options in the future (Hopefully this is the case for my sake as well).
  • RacinReaverRacinReaver Registered User Posts: 6,608 Senior Member
    nstannik, are you interested in the actual creation of new technologies or the implementation of existing technologies through policy decisions?

    You may want to look into CMU's Civil/Environmental Engineering department along with a double major in Engineering & Public Policy that they offer if it's the second.
  • lowendnewbielowendnewbie Registered User Posts: 264 Junior Member
    Hey nstannik

    One of my interviews was helping with life cycle analysis for alternate fuels especially ethanol. The other was working with co-generation for buildings. I'm not sure if you're interested in co-generation but you'll learn about it in environmental engineering and i find it interesting. Also, aside from life cycle analysis I haven't learned much about alternate energy yet.
  • nstanniknstannik Registered User Posts: 12 New Member
    Wow, so much to respond to! The answers here are really great and keep giving me something new to think about! Thanks so much to everyone!

    britbrat1961: yeah, we are going to look at a lot of those colleges, although money and distance (we're in PA) are pretty limiting in my family. Specifically, we'll probably check out Michigan, Penn State, Cornell, and Syracuse. You might also want to look into Illinois-Urbana, Carnegie-Mellon, and UC Berkeley. You definitely offered some confirmation that we're looking in the right places! Right now I think Stanford and Michigan are my top picks, but we still have to do some visits and money/distance would both be a big issue at Stanford.

    tahncol86: thanks for your input. Nuclear isn't really my thing, but I'll defintely look into the Energy Policy & Analysis certificate, which sounds like it might be the policy-end balance I'm looking for.

    RacinReaver: I'm more interested in environmental improvement than in new design, so I would probably lean toward implementation. We've planned a visit to CMU, so I'll be sure to ask about Engineering & Public Policy.

    lowendnewbie: By "life cycle analysis" do you mean analyzing the amount of net energy produced from ethanol production or something similar? I don't know much about co-generation, but what I do know seems pretty interesting.

    To all: Stanford has an Atmosphere/Energy program:
    Although Stanford is one of my top picks, I'm not sure how realistic it is to expect to go there, especially with the cost factor. Anyway, I found the fact that this program was tied into Environmental and Civil engineering (instead of policy or something similar) very encouraging. Please let me know any thoughts on this.

  • lowendnewbielowendnewbie Registered User Posts: 264 Junior Member
    Hi Nils,

    I was gonna give you my own definition of life cycle analysis but i found a more detailed one. Life cycle assessment - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Co-generation is using waste heat to power something else. For example power plants generate power but also have heat as a waste product. Sometimes this heat is put into lakes which increase temperature and disturbs the ecosytem. Co-generation would look at making use of this heat. They could use the heat to heat the building itself or other nearby buildings.
  • nstanniknstannik Registered User Posts: 12 New Member
    Oh ok, and applied to ethanol this would calculate the net energy gain (or loss) from the whole production process?

    Co-generation sounds kind of like a cross between pure environmental engineering and renewable energy engineering. I'll definitely keep my eyes open for this.

    Thanks for the tip!
  • britbrat1961britbrat1961 Registered User Posts: 474 Member
    nstannik...be sure and look at Stanford's new financial aid package. It basically goes like this. If you are accepted and your family gross income is between $60,000 and $100,000 your tuition is completely paid. If the income is below $60,000 all tuition and fees are paid. Also, there is a fairly new degree at Penn State Univ. called Energy Engineering. Take a look at it. It looks like it might fit your needs and be close to home.

    Energy Engineering | Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering
  • nstanniknstannik Registered User Posts: 12 New Member
    britbrat1961, thanks for the tips! i'm not sure if we'd make the cutoff or not, but I image stanford also offers incremental support above 100k or for academic merit. I guess it can't hurt to just apply and see what comes of it.

    We're planning on visiting penn state in early august, so at the very least I'll ask about this program. I'm not sure if it would be the right major for me (fossil fuels are something I'd rather stay away from) but it looks like a good minor or secondary degree if I end up at penn state. I'd be interested to see how the balance is btw. old and new energy sources.
  • davh01davh01 Registered User Posts: 229 Junior Member
    I would not major in renewable energy as it becomes too specialized. Major instead in mechanical engineering with concentration in energy, power, or whatever the university name it . Power production is all the same except for solar energy. The only difference is the source of fuel. A turbine, generator and auxiliary equipment are needed to produce electricity on large scale. (Small scale you can have combustion engines, fuel cell, etc). The source of fuel to turn the turbine can be coal, nuclear reaction, compress air, wind, wood, trash, biomass, etc., which includes renewables. After graduation, you decide which sector of the industry to go into; fossil or renewable, but the engineering principals are pretty much the same.

    If you want to focus on the broader picture of implementation, planning, design, and installation, become a project engineer or a project manager. That usually only comes with years of experience but some company may have project engineers at entry level.
This discussion has been closed.