Yes, Public Policy Does Have a Role in Power Systems Curriculum

By Jane Pulaski
Web+Social Communications, IREC

Ankit Singhal, Jane Pulaski, Matt Backes
L to R: Ankit Singhal, Jane Pulaski, Matt Backes at NAPS 2016

I’m at my first NAPS conference (North American Power Symposium), the annual preeminent, international gathering of academia and industry who are thinking deeply about the 21st century power grid. NAPS is two days of painstakingly presented technical papers, laden with formulas and equations on things like geomagnetic disturbance; fuzzy-based simplex optimization; particle-swarm optimization algorithm, for starters.

A unique distinction of NAPS is its long-held tradition of inviting selected students—the next generation workforce of power systems engineers—to be recognized for their work. For the second year, selected GEARED students have come to NAPS to present their research and connect with international faculty and peers. It’s a big deal to present at NAPS, and an ideal venue for GEARED students. GEARED stands for Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment.

I don’t feel too badly that I don’t understand much of what I’m hearing. As a recovering English major, my brain interprets formulas and equations as art. Mostly, I’m in awe of this erudite scientific community with whom I’m surrounded for the next two days, hoping some of their mathematical and analytical intellect will miraculously rub off on me.

This year’s GEARED students are from MARMET (Missouri University of Science and Technology: Mid-America Regional Microgrid Education and Training Consortium), one of three regional consortiums in the Distributed Technology Training Consortia (DTTC). MARMET is part of the GEARED Initiative that’s preparing current and future electric utility professionals specifically to work with high penetrations of solar electricity and other distributed technologies onto the grid. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative, IREC, in collaboration with DOE, serves as GEARED’s national administrator.

On a gorgeous Colorado afternoon in September before NAPS officially begins, MARMET’s Student Innovation Board (SIB) is hosting an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) student professional awareness event at Denver University’s Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science. The SIBs, a select group of students from 20 engineering colleges and universities in the DTTC network, work with fellow students, faculty, utility and industry professionals to bring innovative solutions to power systems challenges.

Matt Backes addresses MARMET SIB at NAPS 2016

Matt Backes, second year MS electrical engineering student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ankit Singhal, Ph.D. student in electrical engineering (2018) at Iowa State University, saw the NAPS conference as a perfect opportunity for the MARMET SIB to, as Backes put it, bridge the gap between engineering and public policy. “Policy drives everything we do,” he said. “We want to show how engineers can play a fundamental role in the design of policies that affect technology and humanity.”

SIB students have a demonstrated interest in power systems, smart grid and distributed technologies. They’ve also shown leadership and have a strong academic record. Being involved with the SIB may inspire students to pursue careers in power systems engineering and distributed technologies associated with the evolving smart grid, as well as helping address anticipated shortages in the electric power industry workforce.

Guru Madhavan, Ph.D., program director at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, was the SIB keynote. Madhavan, has worked in the medical device industry as a research scientist and has served as a strategic consultant for tech start-up firms and non-profit organizations. Jim Jefferies, an experienced executive who spent most of his career with AT&T and was the 2015 president of IEEE/USA, also addressed the SIB. The interactive conversation gave students information about the kinds of skills required of engineers to contribute to public policy, like what courses to take and how to engage in relevant local issues.

“As technical innovations continue to have more widespread impacts, the involvement of regulatory bodies in product design and implementation will increase,” said Backes. “We want our fellow students to know they can play a key role in shaping the conversation around power systems public policy.”

Both Backes and Singhal agree undergraduates need more exposure to seminars and research opportunities to excite them to pursue power engineering.

“Co-locating some of our MARMET events with other events, like this NAPS conference, IEEE meetings, are good opportunities to heighten awareness,” said Backes. “Reaching out to undergraduates, exciting them about the topics in power systems, joining organizations like the SIB are opportunities to recruit more students into power systems.”

“I’d really like to see more emphasis on the humanities in engineering curriculum,” said Singhal. “Typical Ph.D electives are in ‘sister’ technical areas like statistics, computer science, mathematics. Why not encourage humanities electives?”

Why not indeed.

“We spend so much of our undergraduate studies in math and science that we really don’t have time to think about or be exposed to other disciplines,” said Backes. “Over the course of my education, my favorite class was Science, Technology and Public Policy, a course from the political science department. It was a tough class. The instructor, a lawyer and former NASA engineer, used the Socratic Method, which was challenging and inspiring. He was able to motivate us with a great case study on the NASA moonshot program, and then abstract away lessons from it regarding public policy.”

matt-b-presenting-8 I had a chance to better understand Matt’s involvement and interest in power systems and public policy from his presentation, Off-Grid Microgrid Development for the Village of Katumbi, Tanzania. The Power Africa Initiative, through the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and launched in July 2013 by President Obama, focused on increasing access to reliable, affordable and sustainable power, while expanding microgrid/off-grid solutions. Clearly, his technical knowledge to assess the needs of the current power infrastructure is important, but equally important is the public policy component for those in the power community.

“Similar policy initiatives like Power Africa exist in organizations like IEEE,” said Backes. “Their Smart Village Initiative provides start-up training and ongoing support to help poor, energy-deprived communities build toward sustainable prosperity globally.”

Graduate students Backes and Singhal are pursuing different paths after graduation.

“I’m definitely headed toward academia,” said Singhal. “As students, we’re so focused on the technical aspects of our power systems engineering education. Sometimes, power engineering gets a bad rap; it’s been around a long time and perceived to be not as cool as software engineering. I’d like to see more leadership opportunities like SIBs and a richer humanities curriculum to excite and inspire my peers to pursue power systems.”

“I like the rough and tumble,” said Backes. “I’m interested in engaging socially, in business or a technical setting, perhaps in a national lab or industry. I want to excite and inspire my power engineering peers with the awesome idea of designing the 21st century power grid using technical and policy considerations. How cool is that?”