I'll tell the story of my career a little bit in this piece: how I started at the industry's highest-profile failure (Solyndra), how I moved to its biggest success story (Tesla), and why I then left Tesla to work for a bankrupt utility that was in the news for starting catastrophic wildfires (PG&E).
Are there a lot of job opportunities in climate tech?
I'm an engineer, not a career advisor, so my advice about entering and navigating the world of climate tech is mostly anecdotal. But I do know one thing about climate tech jobs in general: there's gonna be a lot of them. This report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources does a good job explaining how this is playing out in electric power (my particular corner of the climate tech world): Everything about how we consume, distribute, and produce electricity is changing. Most of the existing power infrastructure is aging and needs upgrade or replacement. The utility workforce is retiring faster than it's being replaced.
All of that means we need a very, very big new workforce in energy. And of course this report came before the unprecedented federal climate leadership of the last few months, which promises to enable an even greater climate tech boom over the next decade. Not to mention how the emissions reduction curve to achieve 2 degrees or less of warming gets steeper every year that we fail to reverse the trend.
So if you are thinking of pursuing a career in climate tech, then I'll tell you what a mentor once told me as I was starting to work on microgrids: "you are on the ground floor of a future trillion dollar industry." Congratulations - let's get to work!
What should I study in school if I want to work in climate tech?
Most stock photos about the climate workforce show someone in a hard hat - typically a wind technician on top of a turbine or a solar installer on a comp shingle roof. But over the last few years, I've read some great writing that has expanded my perspective about the wide diversity of professions that are, in fact, critical for a just and speedy transition: nurses and domestic workers, teachers, farmers, wooly mammoth experts. I never could have completed the projects I've worked on without effective lawyers, bankers, analysts, project managers, and salespeople. Climate change touches everything, so I believe you can be an important part of the just transition no matter what your interests and skills are. If you want to really widen your perspective on climate solutions, get yourself a copy of Drawdown by Paul Hawken.
The story of my formal education, and how it relates to my climate career, can generally be summed up this way: I've tried really hard to "train" myself with classes and books and side-projects, but in the end I've learned everything I need to know for my job by just doing it. Education and credentials have helped give me some confidence at times - but in general, every time that I've tried to learn something formally so that I could apply it at work, I've found my career (and sometimes the whole industry!) has moved in a different direction by the time I'm done with my planned training program.
When I started college in 2006, wanting to work on climate change, biofuels were booming, so I declared as a Chemical Engineer. But by the time I graduated, that boom had busted. I took my first job at a solar company (more about that next), where everything was about electricity - so over the next 5 years I worked on retraining myself as an electrical engineer. But by the time I had my P.E. license in Power Systems, I found my work taking me closer to software programming - industrial automation code for microgrids, software specs for battery products. I did as many coding side projects as I could to get better (an arduino-based halloween costume, lots of little python and SQL scripts here and there) - but then I found a job closer to technical program management, and haven't had much reason to code anything for the last 18 months.
When my work requires me to ramp up quickly on a new technology - whether it's fuel cells or solid-state circuit breakers - I never refer back to class notes. The skills that enable success are the same for me 99% of the time:
I'm not knocking a university education, and a Bachelor's is still a requirement for most white-collar jobs. But I view university training mostly as an opportunity to practice and refine those three skills above. Make sure you do as many projects as you can, because you don't need those skills for problem sets but you need them for every project. Try to make things, whether physical or otherwise: build a team, a robot, a small business venture, a drinking-water filter, a big event, a high-power gaming computer, whatever!
How did you get your job in climate tech ?
Over the decade that I've been working in renewable energy, the industry has been through some major booms and busts. The end result has been a much larger and more mature industry than we had 10 years ago. Circling back to the first section of this post, I believe that climate tech is going to continue to boom more and more over the coming decades - but the boom won't always be linear. New industries that hardly exist today will arise - green aviation, direct air capture, green cement - and some companies will inevitably fail along the way. That can be very scary to be a part of. My advice is "don't check your stock price" - try to ignore both the booms and the busts, because if you zoom out to get a long-term perspective, two simple truths will come into focus: the climate tech industry is going to keep expanding, and that means your contribution is going to be valued highly.
My first job out of college was with a manufacturer of tube-shaped solar panels in Fremont, CA called Solyndra. I was star-struck: they had just opened a brand new factory, Obama had toured it, and I was moving from Michigan to California for the job. I literally posted this on my facebook timeline in March 2011.
Younger readers might not know the punchline here: Solyndra went bankrupt less than six months after I made that post. Not only that, but as the hype cycle for the 2012 election got started, Republicans spun the bankruptcy into an absurd political talking point - I won't get into that, but if you want to know the full story, this Vox article does a good job. To this day, Solyndra's bankruptcy is the highest-profile failure that the cleantech industry has seen (though not the only one, and not the biggest).
I arrived at my job site the morning of September 1, 2011 after Solyndra had already announced its bankruptcy to its European workers. I hadn't yet heard the news. My client on the roof was Joe, the foreman of an electrical contractor who was installing a Solyndra system on a car dealership rooftop. I was there to train his electrical crew to install this unique type of panel. Joe casually mentioned that he'd heard something about Solyndra on NPR while driving to the site. When I said I hadn't heard anything, he changed the subject. An hour later I got the call from my manager: Solyndra was done. We were all being laid off. Effective immediately. I looked over at the rickety boom-truck that had lifted me to the rooftop that morning and asked him if I still had health insurance - "I don't think so," he replied. I told Joe, and he hired me onto his crew on the spot, saying "someone's gonna have to show us how to install these things."
After a month with Joe's crew, I found a job with an up-and-coming manufacturer of a unique PV + solar thermal hybrid technology. It wasn't a fit, and in less than six months I heard from a recruiter on LinkedIn that there was a Commercial Sales Engineer position opening up at SolarCity. I was fascinated by SolarCity - its quickly booming PPA business model, its connections with Elon Musk, its comically meaningless name.
I took that job in June 2012 and stuck with SolarCity for the next eight years: through the company's IPO, its massive scaleup, its acquisition of solar manufacturing and racking and project development firms, many nail-biter Decembers wondering if the ITC would be extended, its acquisition by Tesla in 2016, and finally three years on the Energy team at Tesla. With SolarCity and Tesla I had the chance to travel the world developing and installing microgrids, mostly on small islands, from Samoa to Kauai to South America to Puerto Rico. I did not leave until I learned about a PG&E program whose impact I found irresistibly compelling: deploying solar-powered microgrids to reduce wildfire risk in remote parts of California.
Through it all, I've come to see electricity as a human right that unites the world - as well as a form of engineering magic that never stops fascinating me in new ways. I can talk for hours about the energy needs of small island communities or about the coordination of the western interconnect by electromagnetic inertia. I believe this will be a common experience for workers in climate tech: the work touches everyone around the world, and by taking a career in the sector you will get an incredible vantage for watching the world change in the 21st century. Not only that, but also helping it change for the better.
My team at PG&E is hiring, by the way. Please reach out if you'd like to learn about our roles.
So you’ve decided to look for a job in climate - where do you start? Below is a checklist based approach to help.
Only piece of advice I’ll share: folks working in climate are VERY generous with their time / energy in helping others navigate. Reach out to them on LinkedIn, or any of the communities mentioned below
How to look for a job in climate tech: