New program to train power engineers

By Isabella Bravo, Staff Writer

The demand for power engineers has led the U College of Engineering to re-open a program to train electrical engineering students to work in the fast-changing energy and power industry.

This semester, the college’s electrical and computer engineering department is launching its new power-engineering track.

“Power engineering is becoming more complex with so many more power sources, such as wind and solar,” said Arn Stolp, the instructor for the program’s first course. This course will be the first power engineering class offered at the U in more than two decades.

“For many years, power has been neglected,” Stolp said. “When I was an undergraduate, it was a required course. (It) hasn’t been a required curriculum for some time.”

Carol Hunter, Rocky Mountain Power’s vice president of communications and division services, said that when she was a mechanical engineering student 31 years ago, the U had a power engineering program, but it was later dissolved due to a lack of market demand.

“Many of the engineers were hired in the late ’70s and early ’80s and that workforce (is beginning to retire),” Hunter said. “The whole industry experiences a shortage of power engineers in the market. Now we see fairly high attrition rates and anticipate a higher attrition rate over the next five years.”

To solve the shortage problem, Rocky Mountain Power led a group of power companies and municipalities to the door of the U’s electrical and computer engineering department. They asked the department chair for a revived program to address the nationwide need for specially-trained power engineers.

“As we see our industry change, we looked for engineers,” Hunter said. “We decided to see if the U could help make some (engineers for the workforce).”

Some of the largest energy companies in Utah donated nearly $350,000 to fund the program. The two largest donors are Intermountain Power Agency and Rocky Mountain Power with donations of $250,000 and $50,000 respectively.

However, this program has not grown exclusively out of industry demand.

“This program is in part a response to student surveys and exit interviews,” Stolp said.

Stolp said a former student received an employment offer from a wind power company and then realized the U did not have classes that would address the necessary energy issues.

Besides the wave of retiring professionals, there is also a lack of qualified young recruits in the field.

“We were not getting the initial competencies from (hired) engineering students,” Hunter said. “(This program will) prepare them for that hefty project when they walk through the door.”

The senior research project for electrical engineering students last year was a clinic with Rocky Mountain Power. It is part of steps the U has taken to work with industry professionals on the power-engineering front.

“The clinics are an industry project,” Hunter said. “A professor and group of students get together and we pose an industry problem. We fund this coming together of students. It’s almost a consultancy.”

The U will also begin another clinic with Rocky Mountain Power this year.

Rocky Mountain Power has already noticed an improvement in its
recruitment population.

“As far as hiring, one year ago I was eight engineers in the hole,” Hunter said. “Since we started working with the U, now I’m where I need to be. “

Industry and academic professionals agree the new crop of power engineers will face increasingly involved challenges as energy sources evolve and the demand for electricity increases.

Stolp said power engineers have complex problems ahead of them, including network analysis.

“The opportunity is pretty wide open,” Hunter said. “They will handle hefty engineering problems in the first few months.”

Power companies have kept a steady, but limited, presence in the program’s early development stages.

“The senior design project last year with Rocky Mountain Power (is) the most industry input we’ve had so far,” Stolp said.

Stolp and Marc Bodson, engineering professor and departmental chair, designed the first power-engineering course.

“One thing I want to do with this class is to take a field trip to a Rocky Mountain Power site, to (have industry professionals) talk to the students directly,” Stolp said.

Jolie Coleman, assistant director for external relations for the department of electrical and computer engineering, thinks the program will expand and receive more help from local industries in the future.

“Although the program hasn’t grown enough, industry folk will and can be very helpful,” Coleman said. Although Stolp’s course will start this fall with a full classroom, the program is not ready to be called a formal track within the electrical engineering major.

“We have the money. We have the classes. We have the people to teach the classes,” Coleman said. “We’re just (looking for) a faculty member with a developed research program to build the program over time and make it sustainable.”

The department is saving this position for an academic professor from another institution instead of an industry professional.

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