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“Not enough electric power engineers!” complains U.S. Navy

February 19, 2013 | By Anthony Capkun

February 19, 2003 – An Office of Naval Research (ONR)-supported enterprise aims to bring changes to electric power and energy education at universities throughout the States, establishing first-time programs at some schools and bringing new courses and labs to others.

Joined by industry and government representatives, more than 160 college professors and administrators came to Napa, Calif., for a faculty workshop to discuss progress on shared undergraduate and graduate courses meant to reinvigorate power engineering programs that, they say, have grown stagnant in the digital age.

“The number of power engineers in the United States is dwindling, just when the Navy and the country as a whole need them most,” said Dr. Peter Cho, a program officer in ONR’s Ship Systems and Engineering Research Division, who is overseeing the project.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has used “a set of aggressive goals” to guide the service toward renewable power as well as electric ships and weapons. The new curriculum—which covers everything from power systems and electric drives to wind energy and electric grids—takes into account global trends in sustainability and renewable energy.

“Electricity is a critical element for every ship the Navy is building now,” Cho said. “Researchers are working on all-electric ships, hybrid drives and more, yet we are limited in the power engineering area.”

Cho is carrying on the tradition of recently retired ONR program officer Terry Ericsen, whose support of University of Minnesota electrical engineering professor Ned Mohan has led to the Consortium of Universities for Sustainable Power and the creation of videos, textbooks, tests, assignments and lab demos that will help bring the nation’s electric energy studies in line with current attitudes and practices.

Initial funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) allowed Mohan to hold early workshops on revising the curriculum as far back as 1990. ONR provided new funding for the project in 2006 and, now, more than 100 universities across the country have adopted Mohan’s curriculum.

ONR says the initiative has already produced benefits for instructors such as Allison Kipple, associate professor of electrical engineering at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where the local power utility was facing a workforce shortage and looked to the university to adopt a program in power engineering. After attending a 2007 curriculum workshop sponsored by ONR, Kipple began teaching her first courses in power systems, power electronics and electric drives.

“Now, every time I offer a power engineering course, it has the highest enrolment,” Kipple said. “The best part about this effort is that the students are going on to get jobs in this field, often working for local utilities badly in need of knowledgeable employees.”

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that nearly 40% of all energy consumed in the States is first converted to electricity, with that figure expected to rise to as much as 70% in the future. The more expertise there is at home, the less the United States will have to import talent and energy resources from overseas, Cho said.

In addition to funding from ONR and NSF, Mohan has received support from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

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