Gearing Up for the Coming Power Engineering Workforce

In late 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative created the Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment (GEARED) to ensure quality training of the next generation of the power engineering workforce. This initiative is a key part to lowering the cost of solar electricity, advancing seamless grid integration, and supporting a growing U.S. solar workforce.

GEARED is a consortium of four distributed technology training centers known as the DTTCs. Each DTTC includes multiple university, utility and industry partners, all of which are developing power systems training and curriculum that will hasten the growth of the power systems workforce. IREC and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) are national network administrators of GEARED.

FEEDER students touring the OUC PV site

FEEDER students touring the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) PV site

This past summer, FEEDER (Foundations for Engineering Education for Distributed Energy Resources, the DTTC led by the University of Central Florida), offered a comprehensive summer institute on the smart grid, microgrids, and energy systems integration. Principal investigator for FEEDER, Zhihua Qu, Ph.D., was the principal architect of the summer institute, which consisted of three short courses, a field trip, seminar, two research planning sessions, an education planning session, and a professional development training session on microgrids for utility and industry engineers.

“Industry has ideas and knows the problems that need solving,” said Dr. Qu. “The connection made between industry and the students is a pipeline for jobs and the future power engineering workforce.”

The short courses—power systems operations, smart grid stability and operation under abnormal conditions, and complex networks and electric grids—were designed for both engineering students and practitioners working in the field. Thirty students, 10 of whom were women, attended lectures, studied numerical modeling and forecasting, and took a field trip to Orlando Utilities Commission’s 6MW solar PV installation. On the last day, student teams shared results of their work.

Is this any way to spend a summer vacation?

“One of my other favorite parts about the workshop was the tour of the solar farm,” said Brittany Richards, senior electrical engineering student from the University of South Carolina. “It was so interesting to see a solar farm close up. It provided a great learning opportunity!”

According to Qu, the curriculum for FEEDER’s summer institute was developed in concert with industry and university power engineering experts. “Tapping the experts now, knowing what’s in place and what we’ll need to do the jobs for tomorrow’s distributed technologies with smart meters, appliances, IT, smart grid—this is what the work of the DTTCs is all about.”

And not a moment too soon.

For GEARED and the DTTCs, updating curriculum and making it readily available to meet the growing demand for training the power engineering workforce is a very high priority. While current curriculum is primarily in electrical and computer engineering, a five-year plan is in the works to add more undergraduate and graduate offerings among various engineering disciplines, and to expand the scope of curriculum to include energy and environmental policy, economics, and business administration. One option being explored combines the most appropriate MBA and engineering courses to produce a professional science masters degree in power systems. Such a degree should better prepare graduates and open the door for jobs as project managers and other lead positions.

FEEDER summer institute students l to r: Katheryn McCabe, Sanaz Paran, Brittany Richard

FEEDER summer institute students l to r: Katheryn McCabe, Sanaz Paran, Brittany Richard

One of the key facets of the DTTCs is student innovation to help modernize the electric grid network through senior design projects, graduate engineering research projects, and the creation of a GEARED student innovation board (SIB). Participating universities select one or two students to serve on the board. The SIB will liaison between DOE, IREC, SEPA to ensure interaction and collaboration. For the coming year, industry will develop engineering challenges for senior design and graduate engineering projects. In addition to helping generate project ideas, industry can also provide funds for equipment and act as mentors.

“Industry has ideas and knows the problems that need solving,” said Dr. Qu. “The connection made between industry and the students is the pipeline for jobs and the future power engineering workforce.”

Plans are already in the works for a 2015 summer FEEDER workshop. Stay tuned.



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