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06.11

Career Focus: Power Engineering

By John R. Platt

 

Power Engineer Profile:
Jay Caspary
"Be a sponge in your first position and ask lots of questions. Create effective relationships with several mentors in your department/division. Don’t ever stop learning or expanding your horizons..."
+ See full profile

 

Is power engineering a career in crisis, an industry on hold, or a field ripe for opportunity?

Yes to all three.

According to experts, the power engineering field is about to undergo a major 1-2-3 punch that will shake it up more than at any other point in its history:

  1. "Green" energy technologies — such as the smart grid, solar, wind, battery storage and other areas — are about to totally transform the business of energy generation, transmission and distribution.

  2. But at the same time, many — if not the majority — of the people currently working in power engineering are rapidly approaching retirement age and may soon leave the profession.

  3. Meanwhile, not nearly enough new engineers are entering the power engineering profession to meet the anticipated demand that will be seen in the next five to ten years.

These pending shifts will present numerous challenges, but may also create just as many opportunities for those willing to embrace them.

Crisis # 1: Manpower

The aging population of power engineers is "a crisis," says Geoff Zeiss, director of the utility industry program at Autodesk, Inc. "There's a lot of new stuff that we're going to have to do in addition to the normal things we've been doing in the utility industry, and there are less people to do it."

According to Zeiss, the average age of power engineers at many U.S. and Canadian utilities is as high as 55 or 60, putting these critical employees just a few years away from retirement. "There's a large grouping of older engineers who have 25 to 30 years of experience. A significant portion of these experienced engineers are going to leave the workforce soon. As these people leave, they'll take a lot of the information that's in their heads."

A 2009 report (pdf) from the U.S. Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative backs this up, finding that by 2014 "approximately 45 percent of engineers in electric utilities will be eligible for retirement or could leave engineering for other reasons. If they are replaced, then there would be a need for over 7,000 power engineers by electric utilities alone: two or three times more power engineers may be needed to satisfy needs of the entire economy."

Meanwhile, there are far too few power engineers entering the field, or even studying it. "Electrical power enrollment is way down in colleges," says Zeiss. And at the same time, as many as 70 percent of the faculty teaching power engineering are also approaching retirement age. "Not only are the current engineers retiring, we're going to lose the people who would be training the next generation," he says.

Crisis # 2: Regulation

But even with this pending employee shortage, another factor is holding green energy back: regulation. "Federal and state policies were created years ago," says Jim Creevy, director of government relations for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). "They don't yet recognize the things that have changed, or the policies that need to be adapted or created" to spur the growth of these new technologies. Creevy points to a report (pdf) from WIRES (the Working Group for Investment in Reliable and Economic Electric Systems) that says investment in new electric transmission facilities in the U.S. could reach $12 to $16 billion per year, generating up to 200,000 new full-time jobs, but only if regulations change to make it possible. "WIRES says that private investment is ready to be unleashed," says Creevy, "but it's being held back by outdated policies."

This regulatory hold-up is slowing job growth in many areas of green technology. "Green tech is extremely hot," says Sid Mitchener, partner at Vaco, a recruiting and consultant-placement company, "but we haven't seen a lot of hiring." Mitchener says that many startups in solar and wind power haven't been able to get to the growth stage yet because the current regulatory environment does not allow them to expand to their full potential.

Opportunities from New Technology

If the regulatory hurdles are overcome, the growth of green technologies offers what appears to be an almost endless amount of opportunities for the people who choose to work in power engineering.

The amount of work that will be required is staggering. "If you look at distribution networks, there's an awful lot of work and investment that's going to be required," says Autodesk's Zeiss. "The last time I went to a transmission conference, the number was something like 50,000 miles of new lines over the next few years. Every substation is going to at least need to be rehabilitated. In addition, there will be thousands of new substations. I expect a lot of investment in substations."

The nature of distributed energy generation will also require new investment. "Solar and wind power sites are often located the farthest away from residential centers, so even more transmission is needed," says NEMA's Creevy. "It used to be local. Now we're getting power from remote locations like Nevada and North Dakota."

The nature of the work will not be the same as it has been for the last few decades. Dr. Nada Marie Anid, dean of the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), points to her state's utility, Con Edison of New York, as an example. "ConEd is struggling," she says. "We have a very, very old grid. What will we do with these electric cars? And these green technologies? They're beautiful, but what do we do with the extra energy? How do you connect them to the grid in the first place? Then there's the computing aspect of it, the cyber security. We're not talking about your regular utility guy, this is more high-tech. It's not your traditional power engineering. It's evolved."

Part of that evolution is an increased need for computing and software engineering, which have not traditionally been a major part of power engineering work. The home solar company SunRun is currently on a major hiring push, concentrating on software engineers. "The software systems we're building are monitoring systems," says Matt Eggers, VP of operations for the company. "We're signing up 1,000 customers a month. Every installation is a little bit different. It takes a lot of software to determine if each system is working as expected."

SunRun is effectively building "a fleet of distributed energy plants," says Eggers, "and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Monitoring and maintaining those systems are really important." SunRun has also created a unique, proprietary billing engine, which needs to reflect regulatory environments that vary from state to state and utility to utility, as well as sales tools, mobile apps, and software that makes it easier and more efficient to install home solar systems. "A catch-all term our CTO uses is that we're building the operating system for a distributed solar world," says Eggers.

Skills for the 21st Century Power Engineer

These new technologies will require power engineers to have some skills they may not have traditionally possessed. Much of that stems from the communications and information functions of smart-grid and related technologies. "Engineers need to take data and model it and make smart decisions," says Vaco's Mitchener. "It's also about customer interaction, getting down to the transaction level. More data on usage helps us to make sure that equipment is working properly."

"In a nutshell, the smart grid means it's a lot more like the Internet," says Autodesk's Zeiss. "The new engineering people that utilities are going to be hiring are going to need a lot more IT skills. The control software to manage these networks is going to be highly automated. The networks are going to run the grid, instead of the manual system we have now. What's happening, to me, is similar to what happened n banking with ATMs, the 'IT-ization' of workflows. We've got a lot more to do and fewer people to do it, and that drives a focus on productivity."

Zeiss says that a lot of the investment in smart grids will also involve fiber and wireless networks.

The skills that are needed aren't all technical, either. "Soft skills are 50 percent of hiring," reports Mitchener. "It's extremely important. Engineers need to ability to interact with groups outside of engineering and then bring those requirements to the technical teams."

But traditional skills are still extremely valuable: "Knowledge of efficient system design is a highly desirable, marketable skill for engineers," says Benjamin Standish, an engineer for RMF Engineering in Maryland. "Efficiency is almost always a prime owner requirement alongside reliability, maintainability, and flexibility. An engineer who understands how to design and optimize a process for maximum efficiency, such as combined heat and power systems, will save the owner significant expenses over the project life cycle."

Feeding the Beast

Many of the experts I spoke with agreed that both industry and universities need to do more to increase the supply of qualified power engineers in the next five to ten years.

"I think utilities need to start telling universities what they need from their graduates and programs," says Zeiss.

That might also mean encouraging students to enroll in power engineering programs. "Students aren't excited about power engineering," says NYIT's Anid. "We educators need to present it in a way that's exciting and will feed the demand." She suggests linking power engineering to green technology and the idea of doing good for the world. "It will ring a bell with people," she says.

"That should be an advantage," says SunRun's Eggers. "Engineers want to do something that's new and cool and is being used. We're doing something good in the world. There's a lot of cool work to be done."

Despite the multiple crises, Zeiss says power engineering and green energy are only going to grow: "I can't imagine a better career right now," he says.

Resources

The IEEE Power & Energy Society has a site to help students find careers and internships

IEEE-USA Policy Statement on Electricity Workforce Training

NEMA has produced an excellent series of videos called Vids 4 Grids to encourage students to study power engineering

NYIT's Cyber Security Conference, which included a presentation on security for the power grid

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Hearing on "Green Jobs and Red Tape"

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John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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