The Grid Needs You

This is a post from my ongoing series on The Great Clean Tech Talent Gap, which I painfully experienced while trying to staff my growing renewable energy startup.

Our generation has already built the Web. We’re overhauling the power system as our next great technical challenge. – me

Shortly after I started Princeton Power Systems, my co-founders and I attended two conferences: one for the electric utility industry and one focusing on renewable energy. The average age of the attendees at the utility conference was retirement age. The average age at the renewable energy conference was college graduation age. Little did we realize that these demographics would have a huge impact on our business for the next decade.

The U.S. has experienced a huge “brain drain” away from engineering, and especially away from power systems. Half of my Princeton electrical engineering and computer science classmates went to work on Wall Street instead of working in technology fields. When I graduated from Princeton, I asked one of my electrical engineering professors when the Princeton EE department would start teaching power electronics in addition to the usual “mili-volts and micro-amps” necessary for dot-com engineering.  My professor literally laughed.

My father, who has been working on power electronics and high-voltage systems for 30 years, once joked that “only C-students went to work for utility companies.”  I know he didn’t intend this as an insult because in the same breath he said “the utility grid is the largest and most complicated machine ever built…and those students are the ones who built it and kept it running reliably for the last 100 years.” The grid is a marvel of engineering that powers every activity in our society. It enables our standard of living. When it malfunctions either due  to man-made events (the Enron-precipitated 2001 California energy crisis) or technological failures (the 2003 Northeast blackout), people die and billions of dollars are lost.

Credit: NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio

In 2001, the perception was that power electronics and power systems weren’t “sexy.” No innovative work was occurring there and research funding wasn’t plentiful. By and large, that impression was correct; the most meaningful innovations over the past 20 years in these industries are silicon carbide switches — which are still a nascent technology — and various types of resonant converters — which still have huge cost disadvantages.  Most research has made improvements “around the edges.” Of course this is a generalization, but I challenge anyone to name other major innovations in the power industry that have succeeded in widespread deployment as products over the past 20 years (leave your responses in the comments section).

21st-Century Challenges

God bless the grid; while it is really dumb, the electricity it has provided was, for many years, cheap, and always ubiquitous and reliable — so reliable that most Americans have never even asked themselves where it came from, how it is made, or how it winds up being immediately available to flow out of the wall sockets on demand. We just expect it to be there, and when it isn’t, even for fifteen minutes, there is hell to pay. – Tom Friedman in “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”

This lack of innovation was largely caused by utility companies having strong financial incentives to keep the grid reliable…and therefore shying away from new technologies that hadn’t had all the bugs worked out through decades of operation in the field. I’ve visited with the engineering departments of major utility companies and have seen this (justified) conservative thinking first-hand. “Why would we buy that electronic transformer to reduce energy losses when we can reproduce the same old transformer that has worked for the past 30 years? Nevermind the fact that no engineers still remain alive who know how that old equipment was designed. We’re compensated for providing reliable power. Energy efficiency is great, but the risk from new technology is too high.”

For better or worse, however, the requirements imposed on the utility grid are changing rapidly, for the following reasons:

1. Renewable energy integration – Wind and solar energy come and go based on the whims of the weather. As certain regions see high “penetration” of renewables, this variability will cause significant instability that grid operators will need to offset with very fast-responding generation sources or energy storage systems.

2. Distributed generation – Historically, power has been generated at large, centralized coal, gas, oil, or hydro power plants. Scheduling the power production and ensuring safe conditions for maintenance required coordination between a relatively small number of entities. Solar power creates the possibility for every family to have a mini power generation station on their roof. How do the utility linemen make sure that everybody shuts off their mini-generation station before they work on the power lines? How do we know how much power all those mini-generators are producing so that we can balance energy supply with demand? These are tricky problems when you’re operating the largest man-made machine.

3. Electric vehicles – People are creatures of habit…most return home from work around the same time. Imagine the huge power draw and the destabilizing effect this will have on the grid when all these 9-5’ers plugging in their electric vehicles (EV’s) around 6pm. The grid needs to be capable of handling this influx, or intelligence needs to be added to how EV charging is scheduled.

4. Outages caused by extreme weather events – Climate change is real; weather events are becoming more extreme. Even when hurricanes and tornadoes don’t cause the levees to break, they can take down power lines over a wide geographic area and can knock out major generation stations. The grid will need to minimize regional outages and prevent cascading failures.

5. Transmission capacity limitations – As the population grows, transmission lines become harder and harder to install — nobody wants them in their backyard. The east coast depends on companies like Google to build transmission lines offshore so that we can send wind power to where it’s needed. As transmission lines carry more power, they heat up and eventually reach their thermal limit. During summer days where the ambient temperature is higher, the transmission lines hit their thermal limit with even less power flowing through them. The future grid will need to handle transmission bottlenecks that are sure to get worse, but you’ll only notice these bottlenecks when the lights go out.

6. Microgrids – Diesel generators allow Army bases, national parks, universities, factories, and hospitals to operate either as part of or completely disconnected from the grid. Renewables, new battery technologies, electronic transformers, smart grid software, and other distributed generation technologies will allow  homes and entire neighborhoods to jump on and off the grid based on electricity prices and outage events. The grid will need to remain robust despite these energy vagrants coming on- and off-line.

7. Fuel supply shocks – If oil prices go up, we burn more natural gas. If gas prices go up, we burn more coal. But as China’s, Brazil’s, and India’s energy demands increase, and as fossil fuel reserves become harder to access, what do we do when the prices for two or more fuel sources increase? Tap the strategic oil reserves? The grid will need to supply the necessary electricity despite shocks to the fuel supply.

Losing the New Space Race

The grid has major challenges. Some have called renewable energy and the necessary smart grid the new “space race,” comparable to the challenge of beating the Soviets in the “moon shot.” This time we’re racing against the Chinese and Europeans for jobs, racing against the Middle East and the oil industry for freedom from oil and environmental damage, and racing against the climate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The DOE borrowed this analogy and declared its “Sun Shot Initiative” to get the cost of solar installations down to $1 per Watt — down from $5/W today for large-scale solar installations. (I and many others have argued that dollars per Watt is a terrible metric to use, but that’s an argument for another time.)

By any metric, we’re losing that race. For example, the chart below shows that the U.S.’s share of the global annual photovoltaic (PV) panel production has dropped from a respectable 43% in 1995 to a pitiful 6% in 2009.

Credit: Minh Le, DOE

The federal and state governments has two main levers by which to influence our collective performance in this race: R&D dollars for developing new and improving existing energy technologies and tax/rebate incentives for installing renewables. The chart below shows the federal government has finally woken up to this reality and has increased R&D funding. In prior years, state governments took the lead in providing tax incentives and rebates for the adoption of renewables.

Credit: Charlie Hemmeline, DOE

Training the Next Generation of Grid Innovators

Remember those two conferences I attended in 2001? I could have “read the tea leaves” by observing the trade show attendance. There is a true generation gap in power electronics and power systems training. My company and virtually every other renewable energy company had incredible difficulty in finding experienced engineers in this critical field. There are a few experienced engineers still around, particularly immigrants from the former Soviet bloc. Many have, however, retired and most of those who remain are at a point in their careers where they perform more management than hard-core engineering work.

I’ve been able to find plenty of entry-level engineers, since this is becoming a hot field. India and China are doing an excellent job in training their engineering students. Many “refugees” from the telecom industry are retooling their skills and are developing the embedded control systems and software for the “smart grid.” Both the newbies and the telecom guys still need someone to train them how to be safe around potentially lethal high-voltage equipment and still need to learn power industry best-practices from a mentor. The U.S. is lacking these experienced mentors for the next generation of power engineers.

The U.S. schools that are helping fill the generation gap in power electronics and power systems are linked below. If I’m missing a school, please let everyone know via the comments below.

Role Reversal

Last year I attended a military conference and saw a sign that the times were a-changin’. The Navy and Army were looking to utility companies for innovation! Typically, technology has flowed from the government R&D labs and small business into the large government prime contractors, then into the military, and only then into industry (velcro got its big break through the U.S. space program; the internet came from the Department of Defense’s ARPANET). The Navy has historically developed the power generation, power distribution  hardware, and control software that reliably power the “microgrids” on its ships. The Army has always built its own generators, power distribution boxes, and air conditioning units. Now, however, both agencies are incorporating technologies from the renewable energy boom into their systems.

The innovation will only accelerate as schools open new centers focusing on renewables and power systems, adjust their curriculums, and finally fill the 30-year gap in engineering training in this field.

So, Mr. American Consumer…do you want to enjoy the same electricity reliability despite all these looming changes in how we generate and use electricity? Do you want to continue to improve your standard of living…along with the corresponding growth in energy consumption? If you do, then you better budget more for your electricity bill and you better send your kids to engineering school, because the grid needs them!

— UPDATE 8/15/2011 —
There was an excellent podcast on this topic by Renewable Energy World. Here is a summary of the podcast.

45% of the utility engineering workforce is retirement age. Not only that, but the professors needed to educate the next generation of energy engineers are also retiring:

“The U.S. Power and Engineering Workforce Collaborative estimates that only 2,000 undergraduate, masters and doctoral students get degrees in power engineering each year. That falls short of the estimated 11,000 workers needed in the U.S. by 2013.

Further compounding the problem, IEEE reports that 40 percent of power engineering educators in the U.S. will hit retirement age in the next few years.”


5 responses to “The Grid Needs You

  1. Pingback: Mechanical Engineers should be Renewable Engineers « Energy.BlogNotions - Thoughts from Industry Experts

  2. Pingback: The Grid Needs You « Energy.BlogNotions - Thoughts from Industry Experts

  3. Pingback: Mechanical Engineers should be Renewable Engineers | Entrepreneurial Energy

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