Are we educating enough power system engineers for the renewables transition?


Seeking to clear backlogs of solar projects awaiting interconnection across the U.S., key industry players have raised the issue of the number of staff working on interconnection studies. The national solar trade group SEIA has called on regional transmission providers and utilities to add staff to “extricate hundreds of gigawatts” of solar projects from interconnection queues.

Two regional grid operators have flagged a shortage of qualified engineers to conduct interconnection studies, and an executive at an engineering consulting firm has said that U.S. universities are not graduating enough power system engineers—that is, electrical engineers whose education included a focus on power grids.

To explore the supply and demand for power system engineers, we interviewed an engineering school leader and two regional grid operators, and accessed survey data and forecasts.

View from Worcester

The electric utility industry is largely beyond a wave of retiring “baby boomer” engineers, as the Center for Energy Workforce Development expects 27% of engineers in the U.S. electric and gas industries to retire in the next 10 years, based on a survey of its utility members. That’s about the long-term average percentage that would be expected for staff members working for 40 years before retirement.

Even so, “a new challenge has emerged,” as the power grid “is becoming more complex, making it more challenging to design and operate,” said Michael Ahern, director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in an interview.

Ahern, as leader of the institute’s Academic and Corporate Engagement group, hears concerns from leaders of New England utilities and the region’s grid operator “about their many open positions for power engineers,” he said. Utilities regularly ask for his assistance “with their initiatives to attract additional qualified candidates for open positions,” he added.

WPI offers an undergraduate electrical and computer engineering degree with a focus on power systems, and an online master’s program in power engineering.

National picture

Regarding demand nationwide, Ahern pointed to the Center for Energy Workforce Development’s forecast that U.S. electric and gas utilities will potentially need 6,500 engineers through 2026 to replace those retiring, plus non-retirement attrition.

U.S. universities awarded about 17,000 bachelor’s degrees and 12,000 master’s degrees in electrical engineering or electrical/computer engineering in 2018, according to a report from the American Society for Engineering Education. The report, which tracked 393 bachelor’s programs and 278 graduate programs, does not break out data for degrees with a power engineering specialization.

A master’s degree in electrical engineering with a focus on power systems is typically a prerequisite to begin conducting interconnection studies, according to Kalyan Chilukuri, an executive with engineering consulting firm Electric Power Engineers.

The electric power industry in the U.S. employed 17,800 electrical engineers in 2021, at an average salary of $109,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, slightly higher than the average of $102,000 for all electrical and electronics engineers. The bureau projects that across all industries, total employment for these engineers will rise just 3% over the next 10 years.

Regional grid operator hiring plans

California’s grid operator CAISO employs more than 30 power system engineers, of which about 20 help to perform interconnection studies, said a spokesperson. CAISO expects to hire 3-4 power system engineers in the next 12 months, to replace the same number who retire or resign.

CAISO’s level of staffing enabled the grid operator to complete full interconnection studies for 5 GW of solar projects in 2021. CAISO is now processing a larger cluster of interconnection requests, for which it will release full interconnection studies in late 2023.

The grid operator SPP, serving the central U.S., employs 149 power system engineers, of which eight work exclusively on interconnection studies, said a spokesperson. SPP also works with several consulting firms to help with interconnection studies. SPP expects about 10 power system engineers to retire or resign within the next year, and expects to hire about 30 new engineers, based on vacancy rates and expected growth.

The Texas grid operator ERCOT, which completed full interconnection studies for 14 GW of solar projects last year, did not disclose its power systems engineering staffing.

This content is protected by copyright and may not be reused. If you want to cooperate with us and would like to reuse some of our content, please contact: