Behind every blazing light bulb, humming computer and thrumming refrigerator is a complex system that generates, transmits and distributes electric power. And behind that complex system is a dwindling cadre of skilled engineers with the expertise to ensure that the juice keeps flowing.
“There is a shortage of graduates who know how to operate the power grid,” says Associate Professor David Wenzhong Gao of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Denver’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science (RSECS).
With that shortage in mind, the RSECS is launching a new program in electric power and energy systems for students pursuing bachelor and master of science degrees in electrical engineering. The RSECS program, Gao says, puts the University at the forefront of efforts to train the next generation of power and energy engineers — efforts that come just in the nick of time.
According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the power industry’s already acute engineer shortage is about to get worse. In the next five years, the IEEE reports, about 45 percent of U.S. engineers currently working for electric utilities will be eligible for retirement.
That’s happening just as utilities are being called upon to integrate renewable energy into legacy systems. It also coincides with the rise of the smart grid — a system that harnesses information and communications technology to improve efficiency and reliability in power production and distribution. Both phenomena mean that a dramatic re-engineering of the electricity services industry is in order. That, in turn, means that power engineers are needed not just to keep the lights on, but also to drive innovation.
“We need new blood in power and energy engineering,” says Gao, who came to the University in 2010 to develop and jump-start the RSECS program. “We need to integrate more wind and solar energy into the power grid. We need engineers who understand how to do this in the correct way.”
Gao attributes the dearth of power and energy engineers in the United States to developments of recent decades. Once considered a traditional pursuit for students with an interest in engineering, power and energy ceded ground and popularity to the emerging charms of new technologies.
“After the semi-conductor and telecom [booms], people kind of diverted their attention away from the traditional energy domain,” Gao explains. “Government lost interest, and even universities didn’t pay much attention to this very important field.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. power grid continued to age and demands on the system continued to grow. “This has become very serious in recent years,” Gao says.
How serious? Consider the role that energy plays in a high-tech economy, where even minor power outages can result in millions of dollars in economic losses and damages. Or think back to the 2013 Super Bowl, when an ill-timed power outage plunged the New Orleans Superdome into blackness and delayed third-quarter play for more than 30 minutes.
That, Gao says, “is kind of embarrassing.”
Operating and updating the nation’s problem-plagued grid will require a new generation of engineers prepared to innovate in an ever-changing arena. Gao thinks the new RSECS specialization delivers the necessary foundations for success. In addition to introductory courses in power and energy conversion and electric power economy, the program offers instruction in renewable and efficient systems — topics that tap into current concerns about sustainability. Students also can pursue resumé-enhancing internship possibilities with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in nearby Golden.
To make the degree specialization even more appealing, students will be able to join faculty members in a number of power- and energy-related research projects, which span everything from power-system monitoring and protection to the integration of renewable energy into the smart grid. Gao notes that, in recent years, a number of students have secured funding for projects in power and energy from Partners in Scholarship, a University program that underwrites undergraduate research.
In time, Gao expects that student interest in the program will mean that the RSECS will need to add faculty members with expertise in this area. For the time being, adjunct instructors from NREL are handling some of the teaching load.
Given the talent shortages plaguing the industry, Gao expects that RSECS students pursuing this specialization will have job offers at or soon after graduation.
“Many utilities hire electrical engineering grads who have not taken any power and energy classes, and they have to train them,” Gao notes. They’ll be especially eager to make offers to students who will need far less training.