A new center of excellence seeks to brighten America’s energy future.
The first wave of Baby Boomers had not yet reached retirement age in 2006 when the U.S. Department of Energy issued a sober warning to America’s energy industry. In a report titled “Workforce Trends in the Electric Utility Industry,” the DOE said America’s energy labor force – its utility workers, plant operators, technicians and engineers – were aging quickly, while the number of personnel qualified to replace them was declining.
One year later, the Center for Energy Workforce Development released a paper titled “Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline.” As many as half the workers in several sectors of the energy industry, the CEWD reported, would be eligible to retire by 2012.
The reports by DOE, CEWD and other groups have not fallen on deaf ears at Lehigh. In 2009, to help the energy industry secure its future, the university established the Energy Systems Engineering Institute. The ESEI, a partnership of Lehigh and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) with support from power companies, serves as a center of excellence to promote research, education and technology transfer in energy systems engineering.
The ESEI’s focal point is a 10-month, 30-credit master’s of engineering (M.Eng.) in energy systems engineering. The new degree program graduated 22 students in its first class in May 2010 and has enrolled 26 students in its 2011 class.
The M.Eng. program, says ESEI director Andrew Coleman ’90, deals with the myriad of issues related to energy use and energy policy. These include economic growth, the environment, national security, climate change, energy independence, clean energy and renewable resources.
Students in the program receive an intensive education in energy generation, distribution and management, as well as environmental issues. They study capital investment, all forms of power (coal, natural gas, nuclear, biofuels, solar, wind), photovoltaic cells, semiconductors, the smart grid, a carbon-constrained future, and renewable and alternative energy sources.
Each student also completes a research project related to such industry challenges as aging infrastructure, less environmentally invasive systems, and solar energy.
The M.Eng. program benefits from Lehigh’s strengths in technology transfer and entrepreneurship, and its ties with industry. Potential employers guide the curriculum and the student research projects.
The recent recession, says Coleman, has prompted many workers to postpone retiring. The ESEI has responded by forging ties with energy supply chain companies like Siemens and Dresser-Rand and with companies that are developing novel ways of generating and storing electricity, and preparing for the smart grid.
“Our goal remains the same,” says Coleman, “and that is to train energy managers who understand power generation, the grid that translates and distributes power, and the overall economical and environmental impact of energy use.”