Clean Energy Classes

A little more than a year ago, Daniel Abelson was teaching classes at New York’s Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. He had a history degree from the University of Michigan, but began to doubt his career direction. He started surfing the Internet, and discovered the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT)’s renewable energy systems program—the country’s first bachelor’s degree in the study of alternative fuels.

When the subject is renewable energy, students stay awake.© Getty Images

"This program was exactly what I wanted," says Abelson. "Renewable energy is an urgent issue—economically, politically, environmentally." Many other non-traditional students have found a career path at OIT. The typical student is over 30, with a bachelor’s degree in another field and a deep desire to find a workable alternative to fossil fuels.

OIT’s program, launched in 2005, is based on campuses in Portland and Klamath Falls. Course topics include photovoltaics, energy management and auditing, wind power, biofuels, transportation systems, green building and fuel cells.

"It’s a technical school, so naturally it’s hands-on—and that’s what I wanted," says Jerry "Mac" Lewis, who worked in the Amazon Basin as a research ecologist and spent a year volunteering for Americorps before he found OIT. Now midway through the four-year program, Lewis is working on a zero-energy building project.

"The idea was to meet a demand not addressed by other schools in the state, or in the U.S., for that matter," says program director Robert Bass. To help students get jobs on graduation, OIT recently set up an industry advisory committee, which has found a high demand for technology students entering the workplace with an understanding of renewable energy systems.

OIT is not alone. Some 70 students signed up for a University of California at Berkley graduate course in photovoltaics, the largest course turnout in recent memory at the school’s College of Engineering. A Stanford University renewable energy symposium attracted 1,400, nearly three times the expected turnout. "There is definitely a lot of interest in what we’re doing," says Lewis. "Maybe it’s like the computer boom of years ago."

—Mike Beacom