We could be doing a great deal more to train future power engineers. Climate change is an existential threat, and to combat this crisis will require a generation of power engineers driven by this mission. As it turns out, many of the solutions (though by no means all) are in the domain of power engineering, such as the generation of electricity using renewables (wind and solar), storage, and conservation. Given that the transportation sector now exceeds the electric power sector in producing greenhouse gases, plug-in electric vehicles are a solution that will require additional energy to be generated by renewables. And a robust grid will be required to bring energy from remotely located sources to where the load is.
Education is always the first step, and a forward-looking curriculum is required. What would such a curriculum look like? What is needed is a holistic approach. After all, the solutions are not compartmentalized into different branches of power engineering—the knowledge of power systems, power electronics, electric machines and drives, and control is simultaneously required, calling for an all-inclusive view of power engineering. A wind power plant is one example of the need for knowledge in all these areas. There are many challenges, and the following sections outline some of them and their possible solutions.
Seizing the Moment: Creating a Pipeline of High School Students Entering Power Engineering
Young people are very concerned about the climate crisis. Therefore, we have an excellent opportunity to capitalize on this to increase the pipeline of talented high school students opting to pursue careers in power/energy. At the University of Minnesota, we have developed the material for a freshman-level course “Climate Crisis: Implementing Solutions” (z.umn.edu/ee1701) that is piloted in high schools through our university’s College in the Schools program, a dual-credit/concurrent enrollment program. The material for this course is offered free of cost to all universities to adapt and modify as they see appropriate in initiating such a course.
Carefully Developing the Undergraduate Power Engineering Curriculum
Undergraduate education is not a time to specialize, and we need to provide students with a broad education such that they may pursue a career that is best for them. Therefore, it is essential to structure the undergraduate curriculum to include just a few very well-thought-out power engineering courses. This could consist of one each on power systems, power electronics, and electric machines/drives. These courses should be standalone, yet provide a link to other courses. For example, in a power systems course, any discussion of power electronic systems is considered as a black box, other than its input/output terminal characteristics. As we are preparing students for today and tomorrow, the legacy topics should be omitted, since they waste valuable course time and give a wrong impression regarding their usefulness. The benefit of having just a few power engineering courses is that it allows complementary courses such as controls and computers to be taken, providing students with a broad education while gaining a deep understanding of power.
Expanding Graduate Education in Power Engineering
Graduate education is a place for students to specialize in power engineering and gain an education in a variety of its sub-fields. The challenge is that most universities neither have the faculty with expertise in these sub-fields, other than their own specialization, nor have the critical number of students to make the teaching of some of the courses feasible.
To overcome this challenge, through a grant from the Office of Naval Research of the U.S. Navy, we have developed fifteen such graduate-level courses, and all the course material is uploaded to a website of the Consortium of Universities for Sustainable Power (https://cusp.umn.edu/). Experts in their respective fields have designed these courses. They include topics that are no longer being taught in most U.S. universities but are still very relevant to designing and building the equipment for a robust and sustainable power grid and operating it most efficiently. In addition to the usual courses on power systems, power electronics, and electric machines/drives, some of these courses are on topics such as wind energy essentials, power system protection and relaying, high voltage engineering and insulation coordination, design of electric apparatus such as transformers and generators using finite element analysis, and so on.
Offering Online Labs
While the graduate and the undergraduate lecture courses can certainly be taught online during pandemics and prolonged power outages, the teaching of labs associated with these courses is considered to be an obstacle. However, it need not be if these lab experiments are digitally controlled through a computer. In such a case, students need not be in a physical lab; instead, they can remotely control the lab computer, complete their experiments, and get the results for making a lab report. We have developed such lab experiments for all three courses, and these extremely low-cost experimental setups are available through a University of Minnesota startup Sciamble (https://sciamble.com/). The other advantage of the online labs is that only one experimental setup is needed; students share that by reserving a timeslot per week. The entire lab can be set up at an extremely low cost that any university can afford.
Developing an Online Master of Engineering Degree for Practicing Engineers
In addition to providing a forward-looking education to undergraduate and graduate students, it is vital to keep the knowledge of thousands of practicing engineers up to date. To accomplish this, an online Master of Engineering degree will be very beneficial, and such degrees are available from some schools. At the University of Minnesota the fifteen graduate-level courses and the online labs we have developed are very relevant for such an online master’s degree, and the attempt to create one is underway.
In summary, taking a holistic approach and sharing resources regardless of where they are developed, we can train future power engineers to tackle the power system needs of the coming decades. We have the resources, and what’s needed is the will to do so.
Regents Professor || National Academy of Engineering || Fellow: IEEE
Electrical & Computer Engineering || University of Minnesota