We all know we are approaching a crisis in power engineering education. A generation gap has developed in the electric power industry, resulting from years of low hiring levels in its professional ranks. This period of relatively low investment by the industry created a parallel gap in the professorial ranks of power engineering programs at colleges and universities.
Like the electric power grid itself, power engineering courses at most universities have changed little over the past several decades. Sadly, the most significant change for many power engineering programs has been their elimination, as the field has been eclipsed by other electrical engineering specialties such as electronics, computers and communications. As power engineering professors retired, new faculty members were hired in fields that held greater potential for attracting students and funding.
Electric utilities face increasing challenges in providing a reliable supply of electricity to meet growing demand. The existing grid infrastructure is aging with many components approaching the end of their life cycle after decades of service. In addition, the power grid must grow and evolve to accommodate renewable/sustainable and variable energy sources on the generation side and to support dramatically different demand profiles from new uses such as plug-in electric vehicles on the load side.
At the same time, the impending retirement of many industry veterans creates an urgent need to prepare the next generation of professionals to maintain the vitality of the industry. The Center for Energy Workforce Development estimates that roughly 45% of engineering positions at electric utilities could become vacant by 2013, based on a survey conducted in 2008. And in its 2006 long-term reliability assessment, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) identified the aging workforce and the potential loss of expertise due to retirement as a challenge to future reliability of the electricity supply.
The power industry will need more than just replacements for retiring engineers to meet its challenges. Smart grid technologies offer the potential for utilities to deliver electricity more efficiently and effectively by integrating information and communication technologies into the next-generation grid. This requires knowledge of topics outside the traditional power engineering curriculum, including communications, sensor integration, policy, software development and security.
Universities have similar workforce issues in the area of electric power engineering. After highlighting the challenge of an aging workforce in its 2006 report, NERC noted a parallel “decline in the number of college professors able to teach power system engineering and related subjects” in its 2007 report. A report by the U.S. Power and Engineering Workforce Collaborative indicates the situation will worsen if left unchecked, as about 30% of the full-time power engineering faculty members are likely to retire in the next five years.
So, how ready are we to address our engineering ills? The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA) and its member departments in the United States and Canada recognize the need to update power engineering programs. In July of this year, ECEDHA, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, conducted a four-day summer program for 50 university educators to prepare them to teach an expanded curriculum in electric power engineering. This is a step in the right direction but more will be needed to meet the power industry's needs for a new generation of engineers.
Pockets of excellence in the disciplines required for designing, developing and operating the next-generation power grid exist in selected North American universities. The scale and scope of this essential infrastructure demands many more strong power engineering programs.
Student interest in power engineering is on the rise, due in part to the field's role in addressing “green” topics such as sustainability and renewable energy sources. The 2011 summer program represents a small but significant step in meeting this interest with relevant courses and qualified faculty.
As the organization of academic leaders in electrical and computer engineering, ECEDHA is committed to providing leadership in developing the necessary intellectual infrastructure for preparing a new generation of power engineers.
John Janowiak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA).
Editor's note: Our universities are working to develop curricula to meet our needs, but they need our input. It's time we quit griping about the next-generation workforce. Let's step up and support our power programs with our elbow grease and our checkbooks, whether we are talking undergraduate, graduate, workshops or extension courses.