Educating the Workforce for the Modern Electric Power System University-Industry Collaboration

Electric power delivery throughout the United States was designated by the National Academy of Engineering as the leading engineering development of the 20th century. Since electricity was first delivered to private citizens in the late 19th century, the value of reliable electric power to our economy has been obvious. Our world has been transformed by countless technologies enabled by the widespread delivery of secure, high-quality electric power. However, the transmission and distribution infrastructure in the United States is aging, and the need for modernization has become urgent.

One need only glance at a recent professional journal or TV program or the front page of a newspaper to realize the forces pushing for the modernization of the grid—the penetration of renewable and alternative energy technologies, the infrastructure for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and the “smart grid.” The need for new technologies and ideas for updating the grid are topics of daily conversation in the electric power industry, as is the need to improve energy efficiency on all fronts, including all aspects of the delivery and uses of electricity.

Even in the best of times, the drive to develop and use renewable energy sources and to automate the transmission and distribution of electricity would stretch the limits of available manpower. However, these are not the best of times. Financial strategies for the last two decades during the deregulation of the electric utility industry, included reductions in force by utilities and manufacturers in response to economic pressures coupled with the scheduled retirement of experienced engineers, has already caused a workforce crisis. Finding enough engineers is a major challenge, and solutions will not be easy.

The Workforce Crisis

This week I received an e-mail from a midsized engineering firm with a “desperate” appeal for “electric power engineers,” specifically, experienced engineers with backgrounds in the smart grid, modeling, and automation. The firm provides consulting services on all aspects of the smart grid and modernization of the power system. That e-mail is typical of the messages being received daily by engineering educators. The message is: WE NEED ENGINEERS, NOW!

After World War II, industrial America underwent a huge surge and a corresponding expansion of the electric utility infrastructure. As the economy and industry grew, the workforce increased, and many college-educated engineers found jobs in the electric power industry. But those “baby boomers” are now retiring and leaving the workforce.

The U.S. Workforce Collaborative projects that approximately 50 percent of power engineers may retire in the next five years (U.S. Power and Engineering Workforce Collaborative, 2009). These are the engineers who supervised the growth and expansion of the electric utility system for the last three decades. Because they may not necessarily be conversant with many of the new technologies that will be predominant in the next decade, their value in these new technical areas as “consultants” is limited. Never-theless they will leave a staggering void in industry experience. Many of them have no “replacements” or apprentices to train, and their expertise will go with them when they walk out the door.

The Workforce Collaborative (2009) projects that at least 7,000 electric power engineers will be needed by electric utilities alone (a number the author believes might be as high as 10,000) and that another 14,000 power engineers will likely be needed to meet the needs of the broader electric power industry, which includes manufacturers. The full production of all academic institutions in the United States under the current faculty staffing and student recruiting regime cannot possibly meet this demand. The problem is real, and change is needed!

The projected shortage of replacement power and energy engineers in the current market will be difficult to fill with our existing educational structure. In addition, there is an appalling shortage of experienced engineers in the new technology areas that will define the future of our electric power system.

When the demand for engineers is overlaid on the long-term trend of declining enrollments in relevant technical disciplines, including electrical engineering, the “problem” truly looks like a crisis. Figure 1 shows that in the last 10 years, the national enrollment in electrical/computer engineering has dropped by 29 percent since peak enrollment in 2002. Total enrollment for the last decade has dropped by 18,500 students (ASEE, 2009).

Figure 1


The Way It Was

In the decades before deregulation and corporate consolidation, locally run, regulated utilities served defined geographic areas, and the relationships between educational institutions that produced engineers and the “local” utilities were defined and stable. Past relationships between universities and electric utilities had the following characteristics:

  • Utilities regularly hired new engineers who fully expected to work for the same electric company until retirement.
  • New engineers were “apprenticed” in the company. They worked beside experienced engineers, fre-quently for years, to master the technology and to become intimately familiar with the operations, electrical characteristics, and geography of their utility.
  • Utility companies were primarily focused on reliability, and manpower was relatively abundant. Frequently, a utility staff did its own planning, construction, maintenance, and other necessary functions, with vertically integrated resources and responsibility.
  • “Keeping the lights on” was the charge of the day. Other considerations were considered secondary.
  • Upon retirement, senior and experienced utility engineers frequently worked as consultants, thereby keeping their experience in the industry and providing an additional resource accessible to utility companies.
  • Most electrical engineering departments had electric power instruction, and many top-tier universities had large power programs.
  • Electric utilities had long-term, broad-based relationships with local universities. Companies provided scholarships for local students, internships, general support funds for electric power programs, and so on. Some large utilities had their own research laboratories with collaborative relationships with local universities.
  • Many utilities had a “personal” view of relations with their universities, and their universities’ power programs had to prosper!

In this “Camelot” environment, many large universities developed excellent electric power programs and produced the engineers who are now retiring from industry.

The Way It Is

In the last 25 years, with accelerated changes in the last decade, the relationship between electric utilities, the supporting power industry in general, and universities with electric power programs has changed dramatically. Many forces caused these changes.

A period of declining growth in the electric utility industry initiated certain changes. Utilities merged, and so did manufacturers. Severe competition for students from the developing electronics and computer industries caused changes in the dynamics of student recruitment and a decrease in the number of students studying electric power. Then came deregulation! Consolidation of electric utilities changed the emphasis from local, community-oriented companies to nationwide businesses competing to sell power.

The environment circa 2000 between universities with electric power programs and the electric power industry might be characterized as follows:

  • Utilities have imposed long-lasting hiring freezes, and many utilities have had large reductions in force as a result of deregulation and economic conditions.
  • With reductions in engineering staff, few new engineers have been hired in the last decade. As a result, many utilities have a substantial gap or void between their mid-career engineers and their retiring engineers.
  • Utility companies are no longer solely focused on “keeping the lights on,” although they do this well! They must also emphasize financial practices consistent with a deregulated, competitive industry.
  • Most universities with large electric power programs have experienced a dramatic decrease in general and direct support from the electric power industry for students and research programs.
  • As a result of reductions in hiring and competition from high-tech industries, many universities have significantly curtailed or eliminated electric power programs, and retiring faculty have not been replaced in kind. Today, there are many fewer electric power programs supported by four or more full-time engineering faculty than there were in the 1970s, as documented by periodic studies by the Power and Energy Society (McCalley et al., 2008).

Obviously, by 2000, the university/power industry dynamic had changed markedly.

Here is a specific case, without naming names. One large utility was known to support two specific tier-one universities at a very substantial level through the 1980s. This support included numerous scholarships, funding for faculty, general support funds for electric power programs, significant cooperative and internship opportunities, and direct research interactions. Today that same utility offers no student scholarships, no cooperative programs, no undesignated support funds, no funding for professorships, and virtually no research funding. That utility is larger, more “high-tech,” and deregulated than it was in the 1980s. However, its relationship with the universities that traditionally educated its power engineers is virtually nonexistent.

Despite a recent resurgence of interest, and some recruitment of faculty, the status of electric power engineering programs has not improved dramatically in the last decade. The Workforce Collaborative has estimated that there are fewer than five very strong university power engineering programs in the United States, as measured by the following metrics:

  • four or more full-time power engineering faculty
  • adequate research funding for each faculty member to support acceptable numbers of graduate students
  • broad undergraduate/graduate course offerings
  • sizable student enrollments.

Funding for Research and Development

One measure of the systemic problem of electric power programs in major universities in relationship to the electric power industry can be documented by tracking support for research and development (R&D) funding. The lifeblood of a tier-one research university is research support, and research is inseparable from, and synergistically connected to, education.

Knowledge is generated and disseminated to the next generation enabled by research funding. A faculty member cannot have a successful career, and a power program cannot compete for students and university resources, unless external research funds are regularly and systematically available to faculty.

From the 1960s through much of the 1980s, industry research funds were generally available for faculty in electric power programs. Power blackouts in the 1960s underscored the need for “modernization,” a better understanding, and modeling of electric power systems. The creation of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the mid-1970s generated millions of dollars in funding, with significant amounts spent in universities on problems of concern to the electric power industry. The growth of many university programs in the 1970s and 1980s was based mainly on research funds from EPRI.

The creation of programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that provided funding for electric power engineering research enabled basic research. Although the level of NSF funding has never been high and its power and energy research budgets are measured in only a few million dollars per year, NSF funding has been an important component of university research funding.

In addition, from the 1960s on, many utilities funded research at universities directly. Several large electric utilities had research laboratories that collaborated with universities, and research funds flowed directly or indirectly through EPRI to universities, supporting both near-term and basic research.

In the last 15 years, there has been a dramatic decrease in the availability of research funds. By 2000, direct funding of research by utilities at most universities had all but disappeared. Funding through EPRI to universities, which peaked in the 1990s, has also been reduced to very low levels for electric power engineering, corresponding to major reductions in the EPRI budget. The probability of receiving significant NSF funding for an unsolicited proposal is very low; even for successful projects, net funding is generally measured in a few tens of thousands of dollars per year per faculty member.

By the late 1990s, R&D funding for electric power programs in universities was no longer competitive with the huge funding provided by the computer and electronic industries. As a consequence, department heads have reduced faculty and, in some cases, eliminated power programs because they had little funding to support faculty R&D, and the power industry was simply “not interested.”

It is estimated that current non-equipment research funding in university electric power programs, including considerable funding for power electronics (which are unrelated to electric power and energy production and delivery), is approximately $50 million per year (NSF, 2007). That amount is not nearly enough to maintain an adequate number of vibrant power and energy faculties at first-tier research universities.

The author believes that research funding, currently about 60 percent from government sources (NSF, 2007), is unhealthy, unsustainable, and undependable. Of course, government support is important and should be increased, but industry must “step up to the plate” and shift the balance so that most research funds flow from industry consortia and research organizations, as they once did from EPRI. I suggest a goal of $100,000 per year per graduate student and $50,000 per year per undergraduate student in cumulative support to ensure the viability of an adequate number of quality programs.

2020, a Different Kind of Power System

The deterioration of the university/electric power industry relationship over the last three decades can be viewed with cynicism, if not downright depression. But recent progress reveals a light at the end of the tunnel.

By 2020 we anticipate that wind, water, and solar energy (WWS) will be dependably integrated with efficient, conventional-fuel power plants that are cleaner than ever (Jacobson and Delucchi, 2009). In addition, the transmission grid will be greatly expanded, and new monitoring and control systems will help keep it reliable.

In individual homes, dishwashers and clothes washers, more efficient than ever, will turn on to take advantage of low-cost power that the utility has signaled is available; hybrid electric cars will also be recharged in off-peak hours. Electric outages will be very rare because intelligent systems will identify deteriorating power-delivery apparatus and dispatch crews for repair before outages occur. When a major fault or accident does happen, the electricity system will automatically reconfigure itself and restore power with a barely noticeable blink of the lights.

Widespread deployment of these advanced technologies is within our grasp. But to make these systems economical, dependable, maintainable, and operationally independent of excessive human oversight will require additional research and much good engineering. A plentiful, educated, and experienced workforce is the key to our electric-power future.

The Good News!

The electric power and energy industries are back in the news! The need to improve and expand the aging electric grid is now obvious to everyone, and political and industry support are widespread. Politicians have recognized that an essential component of our future economic development and energy independence is a rigorous and expanded electric utility system that incorporates the best automation practices, enables the incorporation of new energy sources and new transportation technologies based on electricity, and promotes energy efficiency—all enabled by smart systems. These improvements will require many more engineers trained in the newest technologies.

The good news today is that there is a high demand for electric power engineers and plentiful jobs for those trained in new power and energy technologies. In fact, the demand for power and energy engineers greatly outpaces the supply, which should translate to increases in student enrollment, more hiring, higher salaries, and a positive feedback loop that increases the rate of production of power engineers by universities. So, we can justifiably look to the future with some enthusiasm, but there is much, much more to be done.

The Right Model

Several years ago when I was working in engineering administration, a company came to us and said, “I want 500 engineers NOW! What will it take?” The urgency of that request was problematic for a university! However, the company was serious and took appropriate action.

First, it funded an endowed chair and several professorships to support new faculty in its area of interest. The company also funded research programs and the start up of a new research laboratory. The company provided graduate assistantships for new graduate students and offered internships with the company. Faculty visited in the summer and collaborated with the company’s engineers to get a better understanding of the problems facing the entire industry. In addition, new research was initiated.

With this close industry/university collaboration and external support from the company, the university made a major commitment to this technical area, which has since been sustained and expanded. As a result of this real partnership, the company has a steady stream of engineers, and the university is now known for its excellence in this area. The educational/research program has grown far beyond the initiatives of the original company.

The lesson to be learned is simple. If you are a company that needs engineers, do not ask for graduates without first establishing a relationship with a university. Industry must “seed the field” and “salt the mine” if it expects universities to provide graduates on demand.

We Are Not Alone

The current need for technical manpower, specifi-cally engineering manpower, is not limited to the United States. The large and growing economies of the world, especially India, China, and countries in South America, are employing more of their engineers “at home” and even recruiting on our shores. It is a compliment that engineers educated in the United States are highly valued worldwide, but the implications for the workforce shortage in the United States are significant.

In its annual report, Engineering UK (formerly the Engineering and Technology Board of the United Kingdom) noted that more than 587,000 engineering and manufacturing workers with “state of the art skills” will be needed by 2017. The report goes on to discuss the difficulty of achieving this number with the rapidly decreasing talent pool in the United Kingdom (UK), which expects to have 16 percent fewer graduates by 2019. The country is also facing a 30 percent decrease in the number of lecturers in engineering and manufacturing and a 17 percent decrease in the number of college-level students entering selected engineering programs (Engineering UK, 2009).

The handwriting is on the wall for the UK, and the country is taking action—first to document the problem and then to find solutions. Here in the United States we have already documented the problem. But are we going to take action to help meet the growing demand for engineering talent worldwide and to take on the international competition?

Taking Action

Here is what we must do to meet this grand challenge:

  • Fill the Pipeline. By exposing pre-college students to the excitement and benefits of engineering careers, we can reverse the decline in engineering enrollments.
  • Motivate College Students. We must challenge students to take on the critical problems that face our nation to ensure that we have ample, reliable, and clean power and energy.
  • Call on Industry. Scholarships and meaningful internships will excite students and attract future employees. Consistent hiring practices will help to stabilize student recruitment and placement.
  • Strengthen Existing Academic Programs and Establish New Ones. Dynamic electric power programs in major universities must be cultivated with an emphasis on hiring new power and energy engineering faculty.
  • Renew Industry-University R&D Collaborations (with appropriate government support). Adequate research funding for university faculty will create an environment that motivates students by presenting them with challenging short-term and long-term R&D problems that will meet industry’s needs.

Conclusion

The shortage of engineers is real, and the pipeline is leaky! But if we have the will, we can overcome these problems. But this cannot happen overnight. We must take the right steps now to rebuild our university electric power and energy research and educational infrastructure and then commit to sustaining them over the long haul. If we don’t, history will repeat itself. The solution is within our grasp!

References

ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education). 2009. Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges. Washington, D.C.: ASEE. Available online at asee.org/colleges.

Engineering UK. 2009. Engineering UK 2009/10 Annual Report. London, England: Engineering UK. Available online at http://www.engineeringuk.com/what_we_do/education_&_research/engineering_uk_2009/10.cfm.

Jacobson, M., and M. Delucchi. 2009. A path to sustainable energy by 2030. Scientific American 301(5): 588‖;â€65.

McCalley, J., L. Bohmann, K. Miu, and N. Schulz. 2008. Electric power engineering education resources 20055‖2006. IEEE Transactions on Power Systems 23(1): 1–24.

NSF (National Science Foundation). 2007. National Science Foundation Workshop on the Future Power Engineering Workforce. Report ECCS-0704063. Arlington, Va., November 299‖30, 2007. National Science Foundation, September 5, 2008. Available online at http://ecpe.ece.iastate.edu/nsfws/.

Ray, D., and G. Reed. 2008. IEEE-PES Works to Meet Power and Engineering Education & Workforce Needs. IEEE.USA Today’s Engineer. Available online at http://www.todaysengineer.org/2008/Jul/PES.asp.

U.S. Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative. 2009. Preparing the U.S. Foundation for Future Electric Energy Systems: A Strong Power Engineering Workforce. April. New York: IEEE. Available online at http://www.ieee.org/portal/cms_docs_pes/pes/subpages/pescareers-folder/workforce/US_Power-Energy_Collaborative_Action_Plan_April_2009_Adobe7.pdf.

Additional Reading

APPA (American Public Power Association). 2005. Workforce Planning for Public Power Utilities: Ensuring Resources to Meet Projected Needs. Washington, D.C.: APPA. Available online at http://www.appanet.org/files/PDFs/WorkForcePlanningforPublicPowerUtilities.pdf.

CEWD (Center for Energy Workforce Development). 2008. Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline: 2008 CEWD Survey Results. Washington, D.C.: CEWD. Available online at http://www.cewd.org/documents/CEWD_08Results.pdf.

DOE (U.S. Department of Energy). 2006. Workforce Trends in the Electric Utility Industry.   Available online at http://www.oe.energy.gov/DocumentsandMedia/Workforce_Trends_Report_090706_FINAL.pdf.

NCEP (National Commission on Energy Policy). 2009. Task Force on America’s Future Energy Jobs. Available online at http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/NCEP.

NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation). 2007. 2007 Long-Term reliability Assessment: 2007–2016. Princeton, N.J.: NERC. Available online at http://www.pserc.org/cgi-pserc/getbig/publicatio/specialepr/workforcec/ltra2007.pdf.

 

About the Author: B. Don Russell is a Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor, and Harry E. Bovay Chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engi-neering, Texas A&M University; an NAE member; and chair of the NAE Electric Power/Energy Systems Engineering Section.