Energy Conversion Fundamentals

Environmental engineers can help determine the most sustainable energy options using systems and life cycle analysis (LCA). This allows a comparison of energy use and environmental impacts over the entire life cycle of the system, such as from extraction of oil through refining, transport, and end use. This analysis is needed to determine which energy sources are the most compatible with the environment and are sustainable for the planet.

Environmental engineers can also turn traditional "waste" products into energy. For example, anaerobic digesters can be used to produce methane (aka natural gas) or hydrogen from municipal wastewater,various organics-laden industrial wastewaters, and animal manure. Environmental engineers can design waste-to-energy incinerators to extract the energy content from municipal solid waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Plastics, tires, etc. have an energy content similar to coal! Environmental engineers can also design systems to extract methane from solid waste landfills. Environmental engineers are also exploring biofuels and other options.

In addition to turning wastes into energy, many forms of energy production require significant amounts of water and may generate contaminated water. Coal bed methane extraction generates huge quantities of water that is generally more saline than seawater and contains hydrocarbon contaminants that are detrimental when released into the environment. Hydrogen fuel cells require clean water. If the entire transportation sector's energy consumption in the US were powered by hydrogen, the amount of water needed is similar to the amount of water consumed by Los Angeles, CA, each day.

Using currently available technology to biochemically produce ethanol per the DOE target in 2025 will require vast amounts of water. The new "in situ" oil extraction from oil shale that is being developed requires both an ice wall to prevent contaminating surrounding groundwater and it is extimated that it would take three barrels of water to produce one barrel of shale oil.

Therefore, environmental engineers will be needed to treat available water supplies for use (and hopefully reuse) in the energy sector. Finally, traditional environmental engineering projects consume energy. In particular, drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment and transmission are estimated to consume about 4% of all electricity in the US. In addition, electricity accounts for about 80% of municipal water treatment and distribution costs. Therefore, energy efficiency in water and wastewater treatment must be considered. As population continues to grow and stress currently used water resources, lower quality water supplies must be used. Desalination technology can turn seawater into drinking water, but this requires about 20 to 50 times more energy than using a high quality water supply (such as "mining" the groundwater).

Therefore, environmental engineers will need to create more energy efficient ways of water and wastewater treatment. Information on jobs in this area can be found at the company links below.

Environmental Engineering Technical Electives (upper-division)

Students select at least Two courses from this list (or a second from list A, no double counting). Faculty can petition to add additional courses.

  • ECEN 3010(S/F) Circuits and Electronics (3 credits, prerequisites: APPM 2360, PHYS 1140)
  • 1MCEN 3032 Thermodynamics 2 (3 credits, F&S, prerequisites: MCEN 3012, MCEN 3021 or equivalents)
  • MCEN 4032 Sustainable Energy (3 credits, F, prerequisite: thermodynamics)
  • CHEN 4838 Energy Fundamentals (3 credits, S, prerequisite: thermodynamics)
  • AREN 5020 Building Energy Audits (3 credits, I*, prereq: AREN 3010 or equivalent, instructor permission required)
  • AREN 5050 Advanced Solar Design (3 credits, I*, AREN 2120 or equivalent, instructor permission required)
  • CVEN 5614 Bioenergy and Bioresources Recovery (3 credits, I*, desired prerequisite: CVEN 4484, instructor permission required)

*I Offered intermittently 
1 Also on List A

Undergraduate Energy Engineering Minor
You may consider the Energy Engineering Minor: The CU Energy Engineering Minor aims to prepare students with the background and tools to be leaders in energy technology, policy and research.  The minor requirements consist of a selection of technical energy courses, an energy policy course and an interdisciplinary projects course, which is comprised of students who are enrolled in the energy engineering minor, and is focused on the design and analysis of energy technologies from a technical, economic and policy perspective.

Special Scholarship Opportunity: The Phillips 66 SHIELD Scholarship
For students interested in pursuing careers in a energy-related field, the Phillips 66 SHIELD Scholarship offers a unique opportunity.

Companies that Work on Projects Related to Energy: