Young engineers powering the renewables transition

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High school students who want to make a difference on climate could consider going into the power industry, because “that’s where the changes are happening,” said Dr. Damir Novosel, past president of the Power and Energy Society of IEEE, a global association of engineers, in a pv magazine interview.

Dr. Saifur Rahman Image: IEEE

Young people who take that path, by earning a degree in electrical engineering, may well find classmates who share their interests. At Virginia Tech, for example, the most popular electrical engineering elective covers solar, wind, and hydropower, said IEEE Power and Energy Society President Dr. Saifur Rahman, who teaches the course, in a separate pv magazine interview.

Dr. Novosel agreed, noting that based on talks he gives to younger people, there is a “tremendous willingness to be engaged in renewable energy.”

The two industry leaders gave interviews, at IEEE’s Innovative Smart Grid Technologies conference last month in Washington, D.C., in which they described an electrical engineering student’s course of study, the power industry’s demand for talent, and future directions for the industry.

Dr. Damir Novosel Image: IEEE

Image: IEEE

Countering a perception that the power system is “kind of old-fashioned,” consisting only of generators, poles, and wires, Dr. Novosel said “It’s not; it’s very exciting because you need to be on top of the latest and greatest technology to be able to run the power system.” And the jobs are there, he implied, as “advanced utilities that are trying to do new things are really trying to build their workforce.” He said that beyond power engineers, the industry is hiring telecommunications, mechanical, and software engineers, as well as economists, geographers, and materials scientists. For his part, Dr. Rahman agreed that the job market is growing.

Regulatory agencies should also hire people who understand the technology, and can communicate that knowledge, said Dr. Novosel. “At the end of the day, we all have the same goal,” he said. “I mean, I’m a consumer as well. I want a lower bill, I want reliable power, and I want to promote renewable energy. I don’t think there is any discrepancy.”

To go into the power engineering field, a student must know power systems, computers, and communications, said Dr. Rahman. “Any decent program in the U.S.” that offers a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering “will have all of these to some level,” he said. In the Virginia Tech program where he teaches, students in their fourth year may take courses specializing in power engineering, plus another specialty such as computers (electronics) or telecommunications.

While Dr. Rahman believes the job market is growing in the power industry, partly reflecting “baby boomer” retirements, he believes that the industry can still recruit the engineers it needs, partly because “you don’t need that many people anymore, and also people are cross-trained; somebody who has a power background can fill in for someone with a communications background.”

Dr. Novosel, while noting that enrollment in electrical engineering programs is increasing, and that universities are responding to a demand for talent, says “there is a need to respond even faster.” He especially sees a need for more multi-disciplinary research teams to solve complex issues—such as operating photovoltaics in a way that provides reserve capacity (“headroom”)—thus meeting “the need that industry has from the university.”

As for future industry directions, Dr. Rahman said that while the transmission grid is “smart,” with plenty of sensors, much work remains to make the distribution grid smart. Looking beyond current uses of electricity, Dr. Novosel said that “the biggest contributor to pollution is really gasoline.” He proposed electrifying “at least a large amount” of transportation equipment, and powering it largely with renewables.

The opportunities for learning continue beyond graduation. Dr. Novosel highlighted a day-long tutorial on storage that IEEE delivered to 160 staff at NextEra Energy, and separately to staff at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Other day-long tutorials were running concurrently with the smart grid conference, said Dr. Rahman.

Beyond their leadership roles with IEEE, Dr. Saifur Rahman serves as director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech, while Dr. Damir Novosel is president of Quanta Technology.