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The energy industry comprises the companies and people who locate fuel resources, harness them or remove them from the earth, and then process and distribute them for use. It is one of the largest, most dynamic, and often most controversial industries in the world.

The demand for energy first began when our ancient ancestors discovered they could keep themselves warm and cook food with fire. Since that time, our sources of energy have evolved, and the technologies we use to generate, distribute, and deliver energy have changed dramatically. Today energy is almost as essential to life as the air we breathe and the food we eat. We use energy every day, all day, when we work, play, drive, and eat. Even when we sleep, we need energy to heat or cool our homes and power our alarm clocks (or phone alarms) to wake us up in the morning.

Virtually no industry in the world today could function without some form of energy. Restaurants need it to power their cooking and refrigeration equipment. Manufacturers rely on it to operate their production lines. Even farmers need power to operate their vehicles. Energy is needed anywhere humans live or work.

For the past 200 years, humans have depended on two primary sources of energy: fossil fuels and hydropower (water), but these traditional sources of energy are finite. Beginning in the last few decades of the 20th century, other sources of energy have gained in popularity and usage. As a result, the energy industry is and will continue to be in a constant state of change as scientists and engineers work to develop energy sources and generation methods that are eco-friendly and sustainable. People want energy sources that have fewer negative impacts on our environment, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and are easily renewable, with no more fears of future shortages. It’s a tall order, but one that has led to many exciting opportunities and innovations.

The energy industry is very broad, but it can be divided into three primary categories:

  1. Energy sources: fuels that are used to generate energy or power. These include fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), water, wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear sources.
  2. Forms of energy: how the energy is transmitted and distributed to customers. The two primary forms of energy are electricity and heat.
  3. End uses of energy: once the energy is generated or created it is primarily used for transportation purposes, lighting, space conditioning (heating and cooling), and for industrial processes.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that world energy consumption will grow by 47 percent by 2050, with oil remaining the largest energy source just ahead of renewable energy. Liquid fuel will comprise 28 percent of global energy demand by 2050, compared with 27 percent for renewables. “We do see a lot of impact from the growth in renewables and such in reducing carbon intensity,” Chris Namovicz, EIA’s electricity, coal, and renewables modeling team lead, said during a presentation regarding these predictions. “That being said, demand is still growing and there are still portions of demand that are most economically satisfied through burning of fossil fuels.” In addition, the EIA predicts that for the next two decades, the United States will reduce its dependency on foreign oil and natural gas and be able to generate a considerable amount of the oil and gas the country needs. “In September 2019, the United States became a net petroleum exporter for the first time since monthly records began in 1973,” according to EIA. “Although the United States is a net petroleum exporter as a whole, most regions other than the U.S. Gulf Coast region remain net petroleum importers.”

However, the desire to develop renewable, clean energy sources will continue to play a major role in the energy industry. The efforts of the petroleum and gas industries to prolong fossil fuel resources may buy more time for the development of alternative sources, such as solar, wind, and biofuels. Thanks to interest in alternative energy sources, there are more sectors than ever before in the industry today. People who want to launch or further a career in the energy industry have some tough choices ahead of them. They can choose to work in any of these sectors (and this is not an exhaustive list; it includes segments of all three divisions of the industry): petroleum and oil, natural gas, electric generation, electric distribution and delivery, solar energy, wind energy, nuclear energy, geothermal energy, biofuels, and energy services and consultation.

Each of these sectors offers many opportunities. People who enjoy technical work can pursue careers as engineers, scientists, technicians, or operators. People who enjoy business management can become supervisors, managers, executives, sales reps, or brokers. Other professionals are needed to market the industry, hire workers, maintain accounting and reporting, and undertake all the administrative tasks associated with operating a business. A new sector of the industry, energy consulting, is gaining in popularity, both in the industry and with employees. Large companies are marketing energy-saving programs and devices, and consultants and scientists developing and selling them are attracted to these companies by the lucrative salaries that they offer.

As the industry becomes more complex and energy more expensive, it is highly likely that these companies and these careers will continue to grow. For example, smart grid or smart meter technologies, those that offer two-way communication and allow utility companies to gather data and adjust generating capacities, require highly trained and skilled technicians and IT personnel. Companies such as IBM, General Electric, Itron, and Cisco develop these technologies and as their market increases, so does the need for employees. Another growing career field is energy efficiency because individuals and organizations are increasingly focused on reducing rising energy costs. Efficiency consultants analyze existing energy output and suggest ways to lower utility bills. Technicians help consumers and businesses save energy by adding insulation, installing climate control systems, sealing duct leaks in heating and cooling systems, installing smart lighting, and performing many other tasks. Nearly 2.2 million energy efficiency workers are employed in the United States, according to Energy Efficiency Jobs in America. “Nearly 290,000 Americans living in rural areas work in energy efficiency with more than 40 percent of all workers living outside of America’s top 50 metro areas.”

More than 8.1 million people worked in the U.S. energy sector in 2022—up from 7.8 million workers in 2021, according to the United States Energy & Employment Report from the U.S. Department of Energy. The number of clean energy jobs grew by 3.9 percent from 2021 to 2022, outpacing overall U.S. employment growth. Women comprised 26 percent of the energy workforce in 2022 (compared to 47 percent of the overall workforce), according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But their representation is increasing. Approximately 52.3 percent of new energy jobs in 2022 were held by women.

The COVID-19 pandemic—which began in China in late 2019 and quickly spread to nearly every country—caused hundreds of thousands of energy workers in the United States to lose their jobs, while others were forced to take pay cuts and work part-time schedules. Many energy companies cut costs and cancelled or delayed new projects. The short-term damage to the energy industry was severe.

Despite the recent downturn, there will continue to be strong demand for energy—especially after the world fully rebounds from the economic challenges created by the pandemic. The world population is expected to reach 10.4 billion people before the end of the 21st century, according to United Nations projections. With the current world population around 8 billion, this is significant growth that will create huge demand for resources, including energy. Our current and anticipated future energy needs are driving growth in the number of jobs in the industry. Opportunities in alternative energy sectors are especially likely to grow because of declining construction and production costs and rising capacity in the wind and solar sectors and because the demand among an expanding population and rising number of developing nations exceeds the supply of traditional energy resources.