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Engineering the future of energy

Since the late 19th century, electricity has existed in homes without us thinking too much about it. Until recently.

energy-(2).jpgHere's why: The power grid used to be like a quilt that used the same type of fabric, making it easier to manage, since power only flowed in one direction. With the addition of variable generating resources such as wind and solar, and new types of customer based generation such as rooftop solar, engineers who oversee the grid must be able to seamlessly stitch together a variety of very different and very diverse resources in real time.

Jim Avery, chief development officer for SDG&E, says that electrical engineering is having its moment in the sun.

The growth of renewable energy such as solar and wind power along with the use of smart meters has transformed the industry.

“The customer used to have a simple role: They just flipped a switch for power,” Avery said. “Now they consume, conserve, produce, and store energy.”

This trend will only continue, as California has set an aggressive goal to produce 33 percent of the state’s energy using renewable resources by 2020, which SDG&E has already achieved this year, 5 years ahead of legislative mandates. New legislation would bump that number to 50 percent by 2030.

This paradigm shift is creating new opportunities and requiring new skills, Avery said.

“Engineers now have to integrate all types of new customer based technology as well, like intermittent rooftop solar energy and plug-in electric vehicles. It’s definitely an exciting time to be in energy,” Avery added.

So far, the supply of workers with these skills is not keeping up with demand, said Tony Babian, who works for UC San Diego Extension and oversees its newly created Power Systems Engineering certificate.

Part of the problem, Babian said, is that the engineering curriculum at universities has lagged behind the rapid technological advances in the industry. Many newly minted electrical engineers aren’t trained to work in these new, more-complex power grids. In addition, the electrical-energy field is facing an aging workforce. A 2011 survey by the Center for Energy Workforce Development found that by 2020, more than 60 percent of the electric-utility workforce could retire or leave on other grounds.

“Our workforce is aging and it is not enough to just meet demand,” Avery added.

Because SDG&E understands how important it is to be able to fill these new power grid jobs with qualified applicants, it has worked closely with UC San Diego Extension and universities across the country to identify and create programs that teach the advanced niche skills needed.

“It is no longer about just math and science. There is a whole creative side to it now,” he said. “We need people who want to dream, and who can turn those dreams into reality.”

To find out more about the evolving energy field and UC San Diego Extension’s educational offerings in power systems, visit extension.ucsd.edu/powersystems.



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