Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Green Job Series: Careers in Geothermal Energy [First Installment]

Geothermal power uses groundwater found deep in underground cracks and reservoirs. The Earth's natural heat has brought these underground reservoirs to temperatures of 225 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit (107 to 315 degrees Celsius).

Geothermal plants capture and use this heat to generate electricity for the power grid. The plants subsequently release the cooled water back into the ground, where it seeps back into the underground reservoir, is reheated by the Earth, and can be reused by the plant.

Through this full cycle, geothermal power provides a renewable and inexhaustible source of energy.

Many different workers are required to get a geothermal plant up and running. This installment of The Daily Leap's green job series profiles key science occupations in geothermal energy.

Science Occupations

Scientists work in offices where they study charts and maps of geothermal resources. They might also travel to the field to examine proposed geothermal sites. Scientists work on teams with other scientists in various disciplines. Geothermal companies employ some scientists full-time, while others are hired as consultants.

Job Duties

Environmental scientists work with geothermal plant developers to help them comply with environmental regulations and policies and to ensure that sensitive parts of the ecosystem are protected. They use their knowledge of the natural sciences to minimize hazards to the health of the environment and the nearby population. These scientists produce environmental impact studies necessary for a geothermal project to earn its building permits.

Geologists spend a large part of their time in the field, identifying and examining the topography and geologic makeup of a geothermal site. Geologists also study maps and charts to ensure that a site will be able to supply adequate geothermal energy. Geologists use their knowledge of different kinds of rock to make recommendations on the most cost-effective areas to drill. Some specialized geologists might help to monitor a plant's location for seismic activity and attempt to predict the threat of earthquakes.

On geothermal projects, hydrologists study the movement, distribution, and other properties of water below the earth's surface. They help decide where to drill wells and analyze the groundwater that is pumped from the underground reservoirs to the surface.

Wildlife biologists evaluate a geothermal plant's effect on local animal life and their ecosystems. Although geothermal plants are not inherently destructive, construction of the related infrastructure, such as plants, roads, and transmission towers, can be disruptive to the natural environment. Wildlife biologists ensure that the plant's impact on local animal populations is minimal.


Although a master's degree is often preferred, a bachelor's degree, depending on the specialty, is typically sufficient for an entry-level position for geologists, environmental scientists, and wildlife biologists. Hydrologists typically enter the occupation with a master's degree. A Ph.D. is desirable for scientists who oversee environmental impact and site suitability studies.

Most scientists must have excellent computer skills because they use computers frequently for data analysis, digital mapping, remote sensing, and computer modeling. Scientists in certain specialties, such as geologists, are usually certified or licensed by a state licensing board.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently does not have wage data specific to the geothermal industry. However, BLS does have wage data for the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution industry group. The following table shows wages for science occupations in that industry group for May 2011. The wages shown are median annual wages for the United States as a whole; wages vary by employer and location.

Occupation Median annual wage
Environmental scientists and specialists, including health $87,160
Geoscientists, except hydrologists and geographers $77,460
Hydrologists $75,680
Zoologists and wildlife biologists $57,420

For more detailed information on science occupations in the geothermal industry, click the Occupational Outlook Handbook link.

Next week's geothermal industry series installment: Engineering Occupations.

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