Stimulating Renewable Energy Education in the U.S. and Beyond: One 72-year Old Physicist’s Second Career

Robert Ehrlich

This commentary explores reasons why many four-year institutions have not mounted undergraduate programs in the important area of renewable energy until recently, and it suggests ways to overcome the obstacles which continue to exist. Although the author’s teaching experience in the renewable energy area is currently nil, he has developed and is scheduled to teach such a course in spring 2010, and he has learned some important lessons while preparing to do so. In a concluding section he describes a web site he created to assist any other faculty new to the renewable energy field who seek either to develop their own courses and programs, or merely to integrate such material into their regular courses.

As of mid-2009, there are around 15 Bachelor’s-level programs in the U.S. with renewable energy or some variant thereof in their title; there appear to be even fewer at the graduate level. While the pace at which new programs in this field are being introduced appears to be accelerating, it seems curious that only perhaps one percent of colleges and universities have renewable energy bachelor’s programs despite the strong student interest in the subject and the need for graduates in the workforce. As one measure of the slowness of higher education in responding to the need, consider that it was not until 2004 that the second renewable energy bachelor’s program in the U.S. appeared.

Obstacles to new renewable energy programs and the need to mount them

Developing any new undergraduate program can be costly both in terms of money and time, and it represents a long-term commitment by an institution. A prudent institution will want assurances that a proposed new program will not simply attract the same students who would have, in its absence, flocked to one of its existing under-enrolled majors. This concern is expected to be especially acute for a program proposed in a “hot” but untested area such as renewable energy, where one might worry whether its popularity might be fleeting and not be able to deliver the number of expected majors over the long-term. It will be recalled, for example, that in the early 1980’s aplethora of courses on energy were created, which disappeared once the nation’s concern about the “energy crisis” abated. It is argued here that our “energy crisis II” is not going to dissipate so easily, and that student interest in renewable energy could to do for science (and physics in particular), what Sputnik did in the early 1960’s.

Even so, the concern that developing an entire new major in renewable energy might be unwise is supported by some limited polling data the author has done. Despite the strong interest of many of today’s students in the field of renewable energy, these data suggests that many undergraduates might not view a degree in renewable energy as a “real” major like mathematics, English, or engineering. For all the above reasons, many institutions have entered the field gingerly, choosing only to offer renewable energy tracks within existing programs, or alternatively, to introduce them as minors rather than majors. The latter choice is the course of action that George Mason University has decided to undertake for now – see:

Whatever the programmatic structure (new major, minor, or track in existing program) the worry that renewable energy will prove to be a passing fad is, however, almost certainly unwarranted. Given the current challenges the world faces in the areas of the three E’s (energy, environment, and economy), most scientists and policy makers are convinced that we will need to make the transition to renewable energy as rapidly as practical. Supporters of renewable energy now include many movers and shakers in the public and private sectors. These range from former energy executive T. Boone Pickens to internet giant Google, which has started a solar-energy company, e-solar. E-solar relies on a solar-thermal process that can actually use solar energy to produce electricity at night! Google co-founder Larry Page has expressed the view that within 20 years solar power could produce all the world’s energy needs. On a shorter time span, Google says its goal is to produce one Gigawatt of renewable energy — enough to power the city of San Francisco - more cheaply than coal-generated electricity. The company has predicted that this can be accomplished in “years, not decades.” [1]


The field of renewable energy is strongly interdisciplinary, and currently most professionals in the field have their undergraduate training in a traditionally science or engineering-related subject. Disciplinary-based training in science or engineering for those going into renewal energy research may be appropriate, but here we argue that there is also a role for undergraduate interdisciplinary programs in renewable energy – as perhaps a minor instead of a major. For example, a student wishing to pursue a career in marketing, law, IT or public policy relating to renewable energy could well benefit from such a minor.

There is another argument for undergraduate programs and courses in renewable energy that has particular saliency to those of us in the physical sciences concerned about the high attrition rates in our subjects. The ability of renewable energy to capture student’s imaginations and motivate them can be an important means of drawing students into our fields and keeping them there. Thus, renewable energy can serve as an important recruiting vehicle for challenging subjects such as physics, which many students might avoid initially. But such efforts need to be done in an honest way, since students will see through any marketing ploy in which standard courses having little to do with renewable energy are repackaged as part of stitched-together program. An honest move by an institution into the renewable energy area can be daunting from a variety of perspectives, especially from that of individual faculty who have spent their whole career teaching in other areas – I know since I am one!

Physics courses on renewable energy, and finding resources to teach them

Last year, after having spent the preceding half century in teaching physics, I realized that there is nothing more important for me to work on in my remaining years on this planet than renewable energy education. I began modestly enough by proposing a new course on the physics of renewable energy which would build on some basic knowledge of physics, rather than being an introductory survey course. Such introductory survey courses are also valuable, but they serve a somewhat different (less mathematically sophisticated) audience. The physics course I developed (at the 300 or junior level) uses calculus, builds on freshman/sophomore physics, and shows students how to do calculations so as to investigate the performance of various renewable energy systems. I did contemplate a more general course on energy (not just renewables), except I think topics like nuclear energy if treated seriously are deserving of a separate course

Putting together my course was made more difficult by my lack of knowledge of available resources. In well-established fields such as physics there are a plethora of standard textbooks, but what could I use as the text in a physics of renewable energy course [2]? Very few options seemed available given the course level and my desire for end-of-chapter assignments. Likewise, how could I find out about places to visit in my area for field trips? Who could I contact for occasional guest lectures? Where could I find good sets of simulations and demonstrations? Where could I find out about student internships, student projects, and last but not least, how could I find a good set of lecture notes I could build on?

Although I was able to rely on my own knowledge or a modest amount of Googling for some of the preceding resources, others proved far more problematic. These difficulties led me to realize that many other faculty new to the renewable energy area might have the same problem, and that I could have a positive impact on renewable energy education far beyond my own institution by providing a central clearinghouse for all such resources. This was the germ of idea for the “” web site which I started in Spring 2009. Rev-up stands for renewable energy valuation and understanding project, and the acronym reminds us of the need to rev-up our efforts in this important area.

What are the unique features of the web site?

Virtually all existing web sites dealing with renewable energy education, including the excellent one maintained by the Department of Energy, are controlled by some central authority – a fact which has both positive and negative features, depending on the resources, attention, biases and knowledge of the central authority. However, such web sites can never be as responsive to user’s needs as those of the web 2.0 variety, i.e., those which are interactive and modifiable by users. I wanted rev-up to be modifiable by the community of users in the manner of Wikipedia, and it should also offer some of the social-networking capabilities available in Facebook and MySpace. As with Wikepedia, rev-up has moderators that prevent abuses, such as the posting of blatantly incorrect, obscene, or defamatory information.

Rev-up currently provides users with information on twelve categories of resources related to renewable energy education. These include: books, media, places to visit, speakers, simulations, demos & kits, college programs, student projects, research, internships, career information and course notes. Users are free to sort, download, add content, edit and review existing entries. For example, it is a trivial matter for users to find speakers, places to visit, or internships within some specified miles of their location. It is equally trivial for users to add themselves or their institution to the database of speakers, or to that for internships, research, college programs, etc. In addition to querying the database or adding new items, users can easily upload images and videos, such as a film of an interesting renewable energy field trip they took. Users can also post questions or answer other’s questions. Naturally, the site encourages users to propose changes to the basic structure, including the possible addition of new categories of resources, and other ways to encourage renewable energy education – especially at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Thus, is a work in progress that continually evolves to meet the needs of users.


[1] Reported in the November 28, 2007 New York Times.

[2] Eventually, I settled on an excellent text: “Renewable Energy Resources,” by Twidell and Weir (Taylor & Francis, 2005).

Robert Ehrlich chairs the physics and astronomy department at George Mason University. In 2009 he contracted with a company (Sakshi Infoway Ltd) to build a web site to his specifications, and he created the non-profit rev-up corporation to administer the site. Bob gives talks on workshops on the need for physicists to get more involved in renewable energy and on his web site.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.