Alternative Energy Degrees: Bachelor's, Master's & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in an alternative energy degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a bachelor's and master's degree, and potential careers.
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Studying Alternative Energy: Degrees at a Glance

Alternative energy is defined as clean, renewable power sources that produce lower carbon emissions than traditional fossil fuels. Degrees in this field teach individuals about the various technologies and sources that create alternative energy. Programs can have an engineering, technology, or interdisciplinary focuses.

According to 2006-2016 projections made by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals in the electric power field may see a decrease in employment. However, positions dealing with renewable electricity sources are fast-growing, reported the BLS. You can find suitable occupations through such employers as government agencies, solar power companies, and wind farms.

Bachelor's Master's
_Who is this degree for?_ Individuals wanting to enter the renewable energy field Professionals or other individuals looking to obtain advanced positions in the field
_Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary)_ - Engineer ($57,000)*
- Energy representative ($85,000)*
- Environmental specialist/scientist ($63,000)**
- Energy manager ($97,000)*
_Time to Completion_ 4 years 2 years
_Common Graduation Requirements_ - 124-183 credits
- Capstone project
- 36-54 credits
- Capstone project
- Research requirement
_Prerequisites_ - High school diploma
- SAT/ACT scores
- Associate's degree (for some programs)
- Bachelor's degree in a related field
_Online Availability_ Hybrid options Yes

Sources: Salary.com (September 2012 figures)*, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)**.

Bachelor's Degrees in Alternative Energy

Bachelor's degree programs in this field are typically found under the renewable energy title, and it's a fairly new field that isn't commonly found at many schools. The programs are typically awarded as Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Applied Science degrees. The curriculum is grounded in math and science concepts and may also include engineering principles, depending on the program.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Degree may qualify you to work in growing career fields
  • On-campus research centers can provide additional learning experiences
  • Learning concepts in these programs teach you sustainable environmental practices

Cons

  • As a new field, not many schools offer this major
  • Internships that provide professional experience aren't typically required
  • Some programs require you to first earn your associate's degree

Courses and Requirements

Your program's curriculum depends on whether the program is geared toward engineering or technology or if integrates multiple disciplines. However, you can expect to learn about various renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and biofuels. Multiple projects are typically assigned throughout the program's duration with a capstone project at the program's end. Some of your courses may include these:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Global warming/dynamic weather
  • Renewable energy systems
  • Energy and agriculture

Online Options

You'll likely have difficulty finding an online degree program in alternative energy, but some campus-based programs may offer select classes online. These are typically the introductory classes that lay the foundation for the more advanced topics in alternative energy. Additionally, many schools offer general education courses online in order to provide students with more scheduling flexibility.

How to Stand Out with This Degree

While earning your degree, you can gain more knowledge and hands-on experience by joining student organizations that focus on green technologies. You may be able to participate in community service projects and events. Your school may also have an alternative energy research center that allows you to get involved with faculty research projects. Moreover, you can apply for internships with relevant alternative energy businesses or organizations. Although your program may not require you to obtain an internship, you can establish professional relationships while gaining real-world experience in the field.

Alternative Degrees

If you can't find an alternative energy bachelor's degree program in your desired location, but you still want to earn a degree that can qualify you for a green career, consider enrolling in an environmental engineering program. You can study sustainable design and learn how to solve and prevent problems due to air and water pollution. According to the BLS, employment for environmental engineers may increase a rapid 22% from 2010-2020, thanks to stricter environmental regulations set by the federal government.

Master's Degrees in Alternative Energy

As with bachelor's degree programs, alternative energy master's degree programs aren't commonly offered by many schools. And the focus of each program can also vary; some are offered through a school's engineering department and focus on engineering techniques, while others may focus on environmental management strategies.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • May qualify for advanced positions in a growing industry
  • Flexible scheduling options are typically offered
  • Professional and/or research opportunities available in the program

Cons

  • Few master's degree programs available in this field
  • Between coursework, research requirements, and field work, these programs can be intensive
  • Few jobs require a master's degree in this field

Courses and Requirements

Your coursework depends on what type of program you enroll in. If your program focuses on technology or engineering, then you can expect to take classes in design for various energy systems, such as solar, photovoltaic, and wind energy as well as energy-efficient energy systems. In a program with a management focus, you also learn about various renewable energy systems in addition to energy management practices. You may also learn about environmental law concepts, climate change, and other sustainable practices. Regardless of the program's focus, you can expect to conduct research and write a thesis or complete a project. Additionally, internships are often required in order to graduation.

Online Options

Since master's degree programs in alternative energy are typically designed to help professionals advance in their careers, many schools offering these programs recognize that many students hold down full-time careers while earning their degree. For that reason, online options are available for this program. However, you may be required to travel for campus for certain portions of the program.

How to Stand Out with This Degree

There are several things you can do while earning your degree to enhance your education. While researching schools, look at the research centers and laboratories available at the school so you can be sure that you can gain access to resources on topics that interest you. You may also be able to attain graduate assistantship positions, which can provide you with additional research or teaching experience.

Alternative Degrees

If you're interested in incorporating multiple environmentally-friendly technologies together to create sustainable buildings, consider earning a master's degree in sustainable design. These programs are often found at schools offering architecture programs. You typically learn how to design buildings in the most resource-efficient way. A 24% faster-than-average employment rate was expected for architects by the BLS during 2010-2020. Those with expertise in sustainable design may experience the highest demand.

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