The future of energy is sustainable and renewable. The world is pivoting from methods of generating energy based on finite resources, the extraction of which also causes pollution and other forms of environmental damage, to sustainable, renewable, clean sources of energy. If you’re interested in joining the vanguard of those working on sustainable energy research, then you should consider the schools featured in this ranking of the top 20 energy research universities.
All of the universities featured in our ranking collaborate with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory research centers exploring everything from ways to improve the efficiency of energy conversion to the development of new materials to use in renewable energy generation. While there is not currently a specialty in renewable energy engineering, the research conducted takes advantage of multiple engineering disciplines, applying them to this new and exciting field. Check out the FAQ at the end of the ranking for more information on how various engineering specialties contribute to renewable energy engineering research.
#1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT collaborates with NREL on the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry, Center for Next Generation of Materials Design, and Computer-Aided Engineering for Electric-Drive Vehicle Batteries. In addition to its #1 ranking in engineering overall, MIT ranks #1 in mechanical engineering, materials engineering, chemical engineering, and electrical engineering, and #9 in environmental/environmental health engineering. MIT engineering graduates have founded more than 30,000 companies.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #1
#2. Stanford University
Stanford University collaborates with NREL through the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis. Stanford offers both a masters and bachelor’s in energy resources engineering which is focused on training leaders who will help further sustainability in energy production and distribution. Classes taught in the program include sustainable energy for nine billion, energy infrastructure, technology, and economics, optimization of energy systems, modeling uncertainty in earth sciences, and fundamentals of renewable power. Stanford is ranked #2 overall in engineering programs and ties with MIT for #1 in environmental/environmental health engineering, and electrical engineering.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #2
#3. Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University collaborates with NREL through the Center for Alkaline-Based Energy Solutions. This research utilizes chemistry, physics, and materials science to improve fuel cells, electrolyzers, and metal batteries to create more sustainable and effective energy storage. The materials engineering program at CMU is ranked #8, chemical engineering is ranked #15, electrical engineering is ranked #8, and environmental engineering is ranked #8.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #4
#4. University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania collaborates with NREL’s Center for Alkaline-Based Energy solutions. Improving energy storage is essential to creating a more sustainable energy system and that’s the main focus of this particular research center. UPenn ranked #15 in materials science and engineering, #20 in electrical engineering, #21 in mechanical engineering, and #23 in chemical engineering.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #18
#5. Harvard University
Harvard University partners with the NREL’ Center for Next Generation of Materials Design with the goal of pushing forward and transforming the discovery of functional energy materials. The academic ranking of world universities ranks Harvard’s materials science and engineering program #4 in the world, and the energy science and engineering program in the top 100. Harvard’s environmental science and engineering program is ranked #1 as well.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #21
#6. Princeton University
Princeton University collaborates with NREL on Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry research. This research center is led by Princeton University. This project derives inspiration from the process of photosynthesis and seeks to harness its power to help improve the means by which solar energy is produced. Princeton is ranked #9 in electrical engineering, #10 in Chemical Engineering, #11 in environmental engineering, and #10 in mechanical engineering.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #22
#7. Duke University
Duke University collaborates with the NREL lead Center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy. The purpose of this research center is to accelerate the development of semiconductors in order to support the development of energy efficient advanced technology. Duke is ranked #39 for environmental science and engineering by the Shanghai Ranking.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #24
#8. North Carolina State University
North Carolina State University is another university involved in the Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry research center. NC State is ranked #25 by U.S. News overall and the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy ranks their electrical engineering program 20th in the world, and their chemical engineering program 10th in the world and 51-75 in energy science and engineering..
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #25
#9. University of Colorado Boulder
University of Colorado at Boulder collaborates with NREL through the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, and the Center for Next Generation of Materials Design. In addition to being highly ranked in engineering overall, UC Boulder is also ranked number 8 in environmental engineering, number 10 in chemical engineering, and number 14 in mechanical engineering, all of which are disciplines involved in renewable energy.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #26
#10. University of Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin is another university working with the Center for Alkaline-Based Energy Solutions at NREL. The University of Wisconsin is ranked 4th for environmental engineering, and top 75 for materials science and engineering and chemical engineering according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #26
#11. Yale University
Yale takes part in the Cornell University-led Center for Alkaline-Based Energy Solutions research group working on the chemistry, physics, and materials science behind creating more efficient and sustainable energy storage solutions. Yale’s engineering department also conducts interdisciplinary research in energy, making sure to integrate the science and engineering of it with economics and policy.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #38
#12. Arizona State University
ASU collaborates with the Princeton-led Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry research center on harnessing the power of photosynthesis to improve solar energy production. ASU is ranked #31 in electrical engineering, #20 in environmental engineering, #41 in mechanical engineering, and #52 in chemical engineering. The online master’s in electrical engineering is ranked #2 among online engineering graduate programs.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #41
#13. Colorado School of Mines
The Colorado School of Mines works with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as part of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, International Center for Multiscale Characterization, and Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis. The Colorado School of Mines works with NREL so often on so many projects they have developed the NEXUS initiative which specifically exists to further cooperation and collaboration between NREL and the school.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #54
#14. University of Utah
The University of Utah is one of several colleges and universities collaborating with NREL’s Center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy. The University of Utah has engineering programs in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, construction engineering, nuclear engineering and electrical & computer engineering. The University of Utah has research going in wind energy and turbulence, radiative energy transfer, and nano-energy.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #58
#15. Michigan State University
Michigan State University collaborates with the Princeton-led Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry research center to improve light harvesting technologies. Michigan State has a broad focus on sustainability and seeks to incorporate sustainability concepts and practices into as many of its academic programs as possible. Renewable energy is a solution to our pollution problem, however it still involves building and maintaining structures in our environment and environmental engineering can help lessen the negative environmental impacts of this new infrastructure.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #59
#16. Oregon State University
Oregon State University is one of six colleges and universities that collaborates with NREL’s Center for Next Generation of Materials Design research center. The academic ranking of world universities ranks Oregon State’s environmental science and engineering program in the top 100 in the world while energy science and engineering, and electrical and electronic engineering are both ranked in the top 300 in the world.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #71
#17. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill works both with the Center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy and the Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry projects at NREL. UNC Chapel Hill is also ranked in the top 100 for materials science and engineering, environmental science and engineering, and nanoscience and nanotechnology by the Shanghai Ranking. The environmental sciences and engineering department at UNC Chapel Hill seeks to address environmental change, climate change, and other emerging environmental challenges through a multidisciplinary approach that also provides unique research opportunities for their students.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #75
#18. University of Chicago
The University of Chicago works in partnership with the NREL-led Center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy. The Shanghai Ranking has the University of Chicago ranked #12 for energy science and engineering, #30 for materials science and engineering, and in the top 75 in the world for both chemical and electrical engineering.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #79
#19. Binghamton University
Binghamton University spent nearly $20 million in research during the 2020-2021 school year. Binghamton University’s Center for Autonomous Solar Power aims to reduce the cost of solar power and improve the energy efficiency of the technology. CASP is a multi-discipline research center collaborating with the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing, Institute for Materials Research, and the Integrated Electronics Engineering Center.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #113
#20. University of Toledo
The University of Toledo offers an online master’s in energy engineering that focuses on sustainability, public policy, energy management, energy economics, finance, and consulting. The program is highly customizable, allowing students to choose their areas of expertise. The University of Toledo also works with NREL and its center for Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy.
U.S. News Engineering Rank: #154
Frequently Asked Questions
What engineering disciplines are involved in renewable energy engineering research?
Chemical Engineering: This includes subspecialties like materials engineering, molecular engineering, and process engineering. Chemical engineering is essential to solar energy research as all the listed subspecialties play a part in designing more efficient and effective solar panels and batteries.
Environmental Engineering: While environmental engineering doesn’t generally have as much to do with the development of actual sustainable energy technologies, it does affect their implementation. Environmental engineers play a part in minimizing the negative impact of renewable energy infrastructure.
Electrical Engineering: The main subspecialty involved in sustainable energy research would be power engineering. However both computer engineering and electronic engineering have roles to play in sustainable energy research.
Mechanical Engineering: The main renewable energy adjacent specialties of mechanical engineering are power plant engineering and energy engineering. While traditionally these are more focused on the more current modes of generating electricity (nuclear and fossil fuels), the knowledge base and methods of mechanical engineering also need to be applied to new forms of energy creation.
What is the career outlook for these engineering specialties?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics chemical engineers earn a median salary of $108,540 per year. Job growth in the field is projected to be 9% between 2020 and 2030, resulting in a total of 2,400 new jobs.
Environmental engineers earn a median annual salary of $92,120. Job growth between 2020 and 2030 is projected to be 4%, which is slightly slower than average. 4% job growth would result in 1,900 additional environmental engineering jobs being added to the market.
Electrical and electronics engineers earn a median annual salary of $103,390 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job growth rate is projected to be average for 2020-2030 at 7%. This will result in an additional 20,400 new jobs added to the market during those ten years.
Mechanical engineers earn a median annual salary of $90,160 according to BLS. Job growth is expected to be average at 7% with a total of 20,900 new jobs added from 2020-2030.
Can I get into engineering research at the undergraduate level?
Yes! It’s common for undergraduate engineering majors to get involved in research as, for the most part, the master’s in engineering is the terminal degree in the field. Research opportunities will vary from school to school depending on how many ongoing research projects each school has, the size of those projects, and the number of students interested in participating in engineering research.
If you are interested in participating in engineering research as an undergrad, it would be a good idea to get into contact with somebody at the school involved with overseeing the engineering department and ask them about the potential for you to become involved. Often undergraduates will have more research opportunities once they research their junior and senior years.
Do I need to earn a master’s in engineering degree?
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for most positions in engineering. If you want to teach or further specialize your engineering degree then a master’s is a great way to do that! A master’s degree will also make you eligible for higher level research positions, potentially overseeing major research projects eventually. So while a bachelor’s in engineering is a powerful degree that opens many doors, the master’s will provide you with some of the best opportunities in the field. Waiting a while before earning your master’s is also a great way to update your knowledge later in your career. You definitely don’t need to earn a master’s right away. It’s a better strategy for most to get into the field, do some work, and discover what you’re passionate about, then aim for the qualifications you need with a master’s degree once you have that experience under your belt.
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