"What advice would you give to a young person who wants a career with a green or sustainability focus?"  Recently, I posed that question to wide range of experts in architecture, construction, energy, engineering, finance, government, law and other fields.

The response was so overwhelming that I decided to write a series of blog postings on the subject.  In this, the first of the series, we will look at the basic knowledge, skills and experience that a college student or recent grad should develop on the path to building a career with a green and sustainable focus.

What Do You Bring to the Party?

Being "green" and having a passion for sustainability are great starting points.  But you must seriously ask yourself what value will you bring to the party.  What will you contribute to a team of people trying to help a company, organization, community, or government agency achieve its green and sustainable objectives?

Fortunately, this is a very eclectic party that is open to people with a wide range of talents and levels of experience.  The invitations, however, tend to be concentrated around three broad areas of subject matter expertise.  You should develop a basic understanding of important concepts in all three, with the objective of becoming an expert eventually in at least one.

1.  Science and Technology.

Some of the experts responded to my question with a very hard line.  One wrote that you should "get an engineering degree."  Another wrote that you should get a degree in either engineering, chemistry or physics.  Almost everyone mentioned the need to have some understanding of the principles and science behind sustainability.

I agree that we need more engineers and scientists.  If that is your passion, by all means go for it.  Almost every solution to help us become more energy efficient, reduce waste, and abate pollution requires the expertise of engineers and scientists.  Especially for a younger person, walking into the room with an engineering or science degree will give you an instant level of credibility.

If engineering and the sciences are not your passions, do not worry.  There are plenty of other green career options.  Still, a basic literacy in science and math is highly recommended even for those who choose other fields.  If you want to be an investment banker who decides which green and sustainable technologies will get financed, that's great.  Just remember Warren Buffet's advice that he never invests in anything that he doesn't understand.  Understanding renewable energy, water conservation, waste management, and just about anything else that might be considered green or sustainable requires a basic understanding of science and math.

The same advice holds true for government officials who make policy, lawyers who advise clients, salespeople who promote products, and anyone else involved in anything green and sustainable.  You do not have to become an expert in every scientific field.  But you must have sufficient proficiency in science and math to understand what the experts are talking about and to ask intelligent questions.

If you shied away from the sciences in college, do not be intimidated!!  I have a little secret for those of you who memorized the second law of thermodynamics to pass high school physics and then quickly put the subject out of your mind.  The sciences are a lot easier -- and a lot more fun -- when you re-learn them in real-world applications.

2.  Finance and Economics. 

Here is where I will introduce you to Howley's First Rule of Sustainability.  Repeat after me.  Losing money is not sustainable. 

The most amazing technology will fail unless you can figure out a way to make it not just affordable but profitable.  To do this, you need some basic financial and economic knowledge and skills. 

Can you calculate the net present value (NPV) of an investment?  How about the internal rate of return (IRR) or the return on investment (ROI)?  Do you know what an investment hurdle rate is?  These are the basic criteria used by companies when deciding whether or not to make investments.  Mediocre technologies get adopted all the time because someone figured out how to make them good financial investments.  On the other hand, a brilliant technical presentation on a groundbreaking new technology will be for naught if you look like a deer in the headlights when the CFO starts asking about the NPV, IRR and ROI.

3.  Laws, Regulations and Government Policies.

Tristan Knowles, an economist in Australia, responded that when he asked someone for advice on green careers a year ago, they told him to "go to China."  In case you haven't heard, China invested $34.6 billion in clean energy last year, compared to $18.6 billion in the US.

China, Brazil, Germany and Spain, among other countries, have promoted growing investments in clean energy by adopting renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, feed-in tariffs, carbon reduction targets and/or caps on carbon emissions.  Laws, regulations and government policies have had a similar impact on green and sustainable investments within the US.

Consider, for example, why New Jersey has more solar power installed than almost any other state.  It isn't because the mid-Atlantic region is the sunniest part of the country.  It is because New Jersey has required that its utilities get at least 22.5% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021.  New Jersey also has one of the best net metering programs in the country and, until recently, it offered a rebate of $3.50 per watt for solar installations over and above the tax credits available from the federal government.

These types of government policies have a tremendous impact on decisions to invest in green and sustainable technologies.  Every team needs an expert who understands what these policies are, how they work, who you need to contact at the government agencies, and what changes are in the works.  And everyone on the team needs to know enough about government to understand what that person is saying.

Making Your Career Sustainable

Developing basic competencies in these three areas will help you get started and will also do wonders for your career down the line.  I can tell you from personal experience that the most fun you will have is when you get together with a group of engineers, scientists, investment bankers, lawyers and other experts and you can actually understand what everyone is saying.  You will start to impress people, and you will have a great sense of accomplishment.

Most importantly, developing these basic competencies is essential to building a career that will last a lifetime.  No one can predict where the green and sustainable trends will go next.  We may get a carbon tax or we may not.  We may see a technological breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cells or not.  You must develop a foundation of knowledge, skills and experience that will make you valuable no matter what happens next.

Next Steps

There is so much more to share with you from the experts' responses.  Where do you go to get the education and training you need?  What are your options both inside and outside the classroom?  Where can you get entry level experience?  What if you are already on a career path and want to change direction?  What types of networking are most effective?  How do you find a mentor and why is that important?  What types of professional certifications are worthwhile pursuing?  What types of internships and volunteer opportunities should you consider?

These questions and more will be addressed in future blog postings.  To make sure you get them, join our Facebook fan page by clicking here.

John Howley
Orlando, Florida

The biggest threat to gasoline is a small electric car recharging station that is being offered for free to retail stores.  A little bigger than a parking meter, these devices are available on what you might call the vending machine business model.  Retailers are told, "Let us put this outside your store at no cost to you and connect to your power supply.  We'll pay you for the electricity that is used to recharge cars and give you a share of the profits."

According to the Orlando Sentinel, a Florida company called Car Charging Group plans to charge about $3 for a full recharge of an all-electric car or $49 for a month of unlimited charging.  At those prices, electric cars start looking pretty good.  And the major automakers are ready with a number of electric and plug-in hybrids scheduled to hit the market this year and next.

Unlike batteries, there are no major technology challenges for recharging stations.  They are essentially a power source connected to a meter with a mechanism for taking payment.  An iPhone app is already available that will give you directions to the nearest recharging station, and you can receive a text message when your car is fully charged.

The real challenge (and breakthrough) will involve the regulatory process and business models.

Electricity sales are subject to different regulatory structures in each of the states, and in many states only regulated utilities may sell electricity.  Companies trying to sell electricity to charge car batteries need some creative business models (sell the parking spot and give away the electricity?), a change in the regulatory structure, and/or a legal team capable of obtaining the necessary regulatory permission to sell electricity in each state. 

Companies installing the recharging stations also have to carry the capital costs with little or no revenues until enough electric cars are being driven where the charging stations are located.  Recharging companies could go out of business waiting for the electric cars to arrive, and those that survive could face intense competition from big box stores and other national chains that will eventually install this type of device in their parking lots.  In fact, Walmart CEO Lee Scott mentioned this as a real possibility during a January 2008 speech.

For those reasons and others, the real rollout will come when Walmart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, and other national chains start installing charging stations in their parking lots.  Large national retailers could install recharging stations at their stores across the country very quickly and add more to match demand as the population of electric cars grew in specific areas.  They also have the scale and sophistication to handle the regulatory process.

Another possibility is the electric utilities themselves.  In New Jersey, PSE&G has been installing solar panels on utility poles in parking lots.  It is not far fetched to think that one day those solar panels could feed power to recharging stations for electric cars.

Traditional gasoline stations will find it difficult to compete in this electric recharging market.  Today we turn off our cell phones and touch our cars to remove any static electricity before pumping gas because a spark could ignite the gasoline from the pump.  Will we really trust a recharging station pumping out 110 volts (or 220V or someday 480V) next to a gasoline tank?  And who will make a separate trip to a gas station when you can get the same electricity at the same or better price at a parking spot in front of your favorite store?  Or in the parking lot of your office building while you work?  Or at home while you sleep?

Electric cars are projected to capture only about 10% of the total car market in the foreseeable future.  But that could change if consumers find the cars attractive, convenient and cost efficient.  We could find out in the next two years as more electric and plug-in hybrid cars enter the market.

Which brings to mind an interesting question:  If we all start driving electric cars, what will we do with all those gas stations?

John Howley
Orlando, Florida

A friend invited me to join a Facebook group called the Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3) Campaign.  The group has a simple agenda:  To promote "6 easy steps that anyone can take to reduce our carbon emissions."

Many people scoff at such lists of "easy" ways to save the planet.  Thomas Friedman, for example, worries in his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," that the "amount of time, energy, and verbiage being spent on making people 'aware' of the energy-climate problem, and asking people to make symbolic gestures to call attention to it, is out of proportion to the time, energy, and effort going into designing a systemic solution."  He points out that the energy problems we face are huge -- if you convert global energy consumption into oil equivalents, we are consuming 420 million gallons per hour.  We need game-changing technologies and policies, not just six easy ways to go Green.

I agree.  So why did I join the C3 group and invite my friends to join too?

Because our daily thoughts and actions drive our national policies and investments.

Think about the 1980's and 90's.  Does it surprise you that a nation of people who drove SUVs and built McMansions elected politicians in both parties who did not think about climate change or how our oil consumption was subsidizing despotic regimes?  This is not an ideological issue.  Very few people in either political party thought much about energy efficiency when buying cars and homes in the 80's and 90's.  That thoughtlessness was an important driver of our national energy policies during those decades.

Since then, we have become more aware of energy and the environment as a result of a few extraordinary events.  The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the realization that the terrorists came from countries subsidized by our oil purchases.  The escalation of oil prices a couple of years ago.  The current Great Recession.  The debate over global warming.

Those of us who lived through gasoline and home heating fuel shortages during the oil embargo of the 1970's know too well how transitory these trends can be.  How do we sustain our interest in sustainability?

By changing the way we act.  People who act every day in small Green ways will enter the polling booths with a completely different mindset than people who drove their gas guzzling SUVs to the polls.

Besides, we must do something while we wait for the game-changing technologies.  The six simple steps will have a meaningful impact.

Let's take just one of the six simple steps:  Breaking the bottled water habit. 

World consumption of bottled water has increased by 70% since 2001 to more than 200 Billion litres.  Of that amount, Americans bought more than 33 Billion litres.  That's a lot of plastic bottles that need to be manufactured, filled with water, shipped to warehouses and stores, cooled in stores or home refrigerators, and recycled or thrown into landfills where they will take up to 1,000 years to decompose.  Each stage of this process uses much more energy than running tap water through a filter.

Will reducing or eliminating all this waste solve our energy and environmental challenges?  No.  But it's a start.  And an American public that thinks about how much energy and other resources are consumed to produce a bottle of water is one that will think about energy and environmental issues when choosing its leaders.

That's why I joined the Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3) Campaign and am promoting the group to my friends.  Because thinking and acting Green in our daily lives will make a difference today, and it is the only way we will build a public consensus to invest in the game-changing policies and technologies we need for the long term.

John Howley
Orlando, Florida