on June 21st, 2011

Dear Colleagues

Even as long ago as the 1970's, our engineering school saw massively declining enrolments in power systems engineering. Everyone wanted to undertake the high tech type electronics courses. Students were unexcited by power engineering as they perceived it to be old, inflexible and industrial ‘smoke stack’ type engineering. As students we were rather daunted by working with gigantic pieces of switchgear and generating sets (can anyone remember ‘Ward Leonard’ generation ?). Software and electronics seemed infinitely more sexy and something you could control. Power engineering overlapped with mechanical and civil engineering (think of the giant bearings for a generator or the transmission towers striding across your landscape).

Of course, this is not the case at all today.

Today, three things are happening to change power engineering:

  • Green technologies are transforming generation (and storage), transmission, distribution technologies
  • Power engineering professionals are starting to retire (or at least go part-time)
  • There are minimal new entrants to “classical” power engineering

I think we all know that there is considerable uncertainty about government regulation in terms of the green technologies (e.g. the debate on the upcoming ‘carbon tax’). This will have a considerable impact on the precise mix of the various technologies that are used.

Almost half of the power engineers at US electrical utilities will be eligible for retirement in the next few years. And seemingly over 70% of engineering college faculty in power engineering are close to retirement age. I am always startled by the number of older retired engineers (well, I shouldn't be) who look on puzzled when you ask them to work longer hours than the 10 odd part time hours they are doing every week. The additional money is meaningless in most cases and unless it is stimulating work, full of fun or capable of some serious contribution to people, society or the environment, they often lose interest.

It is quite amazing how many universities and colleges have partially or totally shut down their power engineering programs. All of this know-how leaving us.

Fortunately, power engineering today is almost unrecognizable from 20 years ago, with a strong emphasis on software, electronics, communications, if you think of the infinitely varying requirements of the smart grid. The smart grid makes the new power grid very similar to the Internet. A lot of investment in smart grids involves fiber and wireless networks. Although these skills are important, the traditional skills of power engineering are still vital. The ability to create an efficient power system design is very important. Solar and wind energy farms are often located far from the customers and this makes for more design challenges.

So, it is now vital to be re enthused with the opportunities for career and work possibilities in the ‘new’ power engineering and the contribution you can make as an engineering professional.

Perhaps, we should treat the power industry along the lines John F. Kennedy remarked: The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity.

Thanks to John R.Platt from the IEEE for a thought provoking article and the Economist for more on renewable energy.

Yours in engineering learning


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