Kids These Days: the next generation of power systems engineers is in the queue

by Jane Pulaski
Social+Web Communications, IREC

Earlier this month, I spent four 12 hour+ days at the DistribuTECH 2016 conference in Orlando. Despite the marathon days, conferences are where friends and colleagues converge to satisfy our inherent need to connect. I like conferences for exactly that reason.

‘Focused on the Future’ was the theme of DistribuTECH 2016

For three of those four days, I was on GEARED booth detail (Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment), often in the company of graduate and undergraduates pursuing power systems engineering at U.S. universities. Because they’re part of the GEARED initiative, their studies have a special focus: how to innovate to integrate large amounts of renewables onto the grid. Our next gen power systems workforce is in the queue.

A triad of industry, government and academia, GEARED is remodeling and revitalizing power systems education in the U.S. to integrate large amounts of distributed energy onto the grid. This revitalized education is being developed in 16 universities and 19 affiliate schools by three consortiums: FEEDER (at University of Central Florda), MARMET (at Missouri Science and Technology) and GridED (at Electric Power Research Institute). There are 17 utilities, 18 industry and two national labs partners. IREC is the GEARED National Network Administrator, tasked with harmonizing everything. GEARED is a DOE SunShot funded program.

Dr. Zhihua Qu, UCF & FEEDER Team Lead on the big screen at the Siemens booth, DistribuTECH 2016

At DistribuTECH, GEARED had a highly visible presence, thanks to publisher and event sponsor PennWell Corporation and Siemens. PennWell donated two booths so 15 graduate and undergraduate power systems engineering students from seven universities in the GEARED consortia could share their research. One peek at these research projects and you quickly realize that this is our power systems workforce for the not so distant future. Thanks to Siemens, videos about the GEARED initiative and the University of Central Florida’s FEEDER program were on a continuous loop in the Siemens and GEARED booths throughout the conference.

IREC’s Joe Sarubbi (left center) and UCF’s Dr. Qu at GEARED booths, DistribuTECH 2016

A big part of GEARED is finding out what industry needs and converting those needs into curriculum. “We want our students to be successful,” says Dr. Zhihua Qu, University of Central Florida SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) Endowed Professor and Chair, and FEEDER Team Lead. The rapidly changing grid couldn’t offer a more opportune moment to respond: update skills of current workers who will integrate renewables onto the grid and create imaginative curriculum for current students to build the pipeline for the power systems workforce.

“We’re building the future while we’re living it,” says Christina Nichols, Mantech, Inc., contractor to DOE’s SunShot Initiative.

I know some of these GEARED students from their student innovation board involvement. They’re studying electrical or mechanical engineering in photovoltaic design; exploring storage systems for wind energy; creating algorithms for distributed resources on the smart grid; developing simulation tools for PV on the grid. They’re from all over the U.S., like the University of Central Florida; Auburn University; University of Pittsburgh; University of North Carolina/Charlotte; University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez Campus; University of Wisconsin/Madison; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. This new generation of power systems engineers is at the heart of understanding and innovating the grid. And they’re immensely passionate about it.

Michael Carlson, Siemens President of Digital Grid NA, in the GEARED booths at DistribuTECH 2016

Conferences like DistribuTECH put GEARED students smack-dab in the company of industry—a LOT of industry—to make the case for their research.

“We’re looking for problem solvers,” said one industry professional. “Storage is something we’re currently working on,” said another. At DistribuTECH 2016, GEARED students had unfettered access to their future employers.

Booth traffic was steady. One industry representative, after talking with a few students, sent his director of human resources to the booth who passed out her business card and encouraged them to check job openings on their website. Over the course of two days, students shared their work with visitors, made the rounds in the exhibition hall, collected business cards and passed out resumes.

The two informational videos about GEARED and FEEDER – sponsored by Siemens and produced by PennWell – were released at the Siemens mega-booth. Interviews with DOE, educators and students tell the GEARED story: how academia, government and industry are in sync developing a strong impact culture of the next gen power systems workforce.

As George Vellaringattu, a senior in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech and member of the GridED Student Innovation Board put it: “I see myself in an industry that works to integrate renewable energy into the grid in order to keep the world environmentally friendly, cleaner and safer for everyone.”

Kids these days. Good reason to be heartened about the next generation of power systems engineers.