THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
Power's next generation
Today’s students prepare at home and abroad for tomorrow’s electric utility jobs
Kassy Lum and eight other college students from nearby states spent five weeks in Spain last summer to look at the future of energy.
“We were part of the first Renewable Energy Resources class that’s ever been offered at UK,” Lum says. “We had the opportunity to learn about all of them—wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar—as resources and the technology to use them.”
(Editor’s clarification—UK has been offering courses in renewable energy for years; however, Kassy Lum’s experience was the first time that CME 599 Renewable Energies, a course taught in Spain by Spanish engineers, had been offered by UK.)
Lum earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (with a second major in Spanish) in May 2010. She stepped directly into graduate school last summer to pursue her dream of helping Kentucky find practical ways to change its energy mix.
“I saw a color-coded map of the United States once that showed how much wind energy each state used. Only two states were blank—and one was Kentucky. That really bothered me. I thought: ‘There needs to be more research to find ways to make it work.’”
Students get a world view, and face Kentucky realities
Connecting forward-thinking engineering students like Lum with industry professionals is a key goal of the new Power and Energy Institute of Kentucky (PEIK) at the University of Kentucky. This intensive program combines classroom studies for undergrads and graduate students on the Lexington campus with visits to electric utility company sites. Students meet with working professionals to learn how to solve problems in the real world.
PEIK’s partnership with the Public University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, adds an international perspective. Navarre’s hilly, mountainous countryside looks a bit like eastern Kentucky, but this northern region of Spain doesn’t have any local coal.
About 35 percent of the region’s electricity travels through high-voltage transmission lines from nuclear power plants in France. The rest of the power in Navarre comes from local renewable resources. Solar provides 2 percent, biomass 13 percent, and wind 50 percent of the region’s electricity.
PEIK students lived with Spanish families while attending on-campus classes in Pamplona, with excursions to historic sites and cultural events in their spare time.
But the main focus was energy. “Every Friday we went on field trips to visit a power plant or other site,” Lum says. “There, instead of professors, we had people from the field to teach us about the technologies. It was really nice to hear their stories and find out the actual applications for what we were learning in class.
“We got to see the workers and learn how their day-to-day jobs were,” Lum says. “We talked to people who work with the technology every day, and we also got some hands-on experience with the controls.”
Lum says: “Renewable and sustainable energies are very expensive, but people are forgetting the fact that using them is to save the environment, not save money. That’s the biggest conflict in the United States—people want to remain frugal with their money but they want to save the Earth at the same time! We can’t integrate these technologies immediately if we’re looking out only for ourselves and what things cost.”
Lum adds: “Kentucky is a coal state because that’s what’s available. Let’s face it: asking the citizens of Kentucky to pay five bucks more per kilowatt isn’t going to cut it. Politics and engineering and technology all have to go hand in hand. In engineering you have to think of the realism, working with new ideas and with what people want.”
PARTNERSHIPS FOR KENTUCKY ENERGY SOLUTIONS
Chat with anyone in the electric utility industry and you’ll hear about several interconnected problems. As baby boomers reach retirement age, “a lot of expertise is walking out the door” with a “looming shortage of qualified job candidates” to step in. No matter the age or experience level of employees, “the issue is staying on top of technology.”
Add in the national push toward “getting more out of existing utility infrastructure,” developing a “smart grid,” and “adding new generation resources”—well, the discussions can get pretty heated.
UK’s new Power and Energy Institute of Kentucky (PEIK) represents a networking approach to solve these problems. In addition to their degrees in one or more engineering fields (such as electrical, mechanical, or other), PEIK students also earn a power and energy certificate. Prospective employers will know that these graduates understand how the entire power grid functions, from generating stations to smart appliances.
Kentucky’s electric cooperatives are expanding their existing practical partnerships with UK’s engineering departments and adding features to help make PEIK a success.
Paul Dolloff, senior engineer for research and development at East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC), is also an adjunct faculty member in the electrical and computer engineering department at UK. He’s developing courses and workshops that bring together students and utility industry personnel. EKPC also works with universities to provide opportunities for students to take field trips to see the practical applications of technology.
James See, vice president of technology at Owen Electric Cooperative in northern Kentucky, notes that all PEIK faculty members are asking local utilities to tell them what skills their future employees will need. The faculty members then develop coursework that will give students the cross-disciplinary training they will need on the job.
He says, “We’re excited about this opportunity to help students see how dynamic utilities are—and that working for local co-ops is a good career.”