National Grid, Worchester Polytechnic Institute

Utility and University Partnership Delivers Future Power Leaders

A utility and university collaborate to deliver future power industry leaders.

Since the late 1800s, the transmission and distribution of electrical power has been a topic of electrical engineering education. The world continued to become increasingly electrified, resulting in demand for engineers and researchers. But, following the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s, the growth of solid-state electronic devices (for example, computers) increasingly attracted electrical engineering research and development. This moved the research and education focus away from power delivery.

In the United States, the 1973 oil embargo and 1979 energy crisis flattened demand growth, resulting in a major reduction in the rate of utility infrastructure construction and hiring. Power education programs dramatically shrank, with many programs disappearing altogether. But, by 1999, power industry construction resumed, and the workforce demographics began to drive increased hiring demands. The atrophy of this specialty education in U.S. universities meant there was an insufficient supply of new graduates to keep up with the increasing demand in the power sector.

To help meet this demand, National Grid and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) partnered to build an educational pipeline of well-qualified technical leaders for the power industry. Since 1999, the two organizations have steadily developed specialized graduate degrees and certificate programs, graduate research, undergraduate courses and outreach to regional middle and high schools.

Sanford-Riley Hall, where students have been living and learning since 1927.

 

The Challenge of Supply

When faced with the challenge of an insufficient supply of new power engineering graduates, it was time to get creative. Vermont Electric Power Co. COO and IEEE Power & Energy Society Treasurer-elect Chris Root determined: “If we can’t find [master’s-level power engineers], we’ll have to make them.”

National Grid and WPI formed an interdisciplinary graduate certificate program that included both power engineering and management courses to develop the future technical leaders National Grid would need. Nearly every year since, new groups of 15 to 20 National Grid employees have completed this six-course program.

For WPI’s 4,000 undergraduates, classes and labs are preparation for realworld projects that require students put their knowledge into action.

 

Program Growth

From this beginning, WPI grew its graduate power education programs in several ways. Other power industry organizations in the Northeast began similar interdisciplinary programs, including both engineering and management courses. In response to industry feedback, specialized courses were developed in protection and control, power system dynamics and power transmission. Students find these courses particularly useful, especially as the number of customer interconnections rises.

At the same time, these courses develop the depth of capability in key areas for their employers. In all, there are now a dozen engineering and four business courses available in the WPI program. After completing a master’s degree in power engineering, the graduate is prepared to do the following:

  • Analyze power flows in delivery networks
  • Understand electromechanical energy conversion and power system operations and planning
  • Design power delivery networks, both transmission and distribution
  • Analyze dynamic system response to disturbances
  • Design protection and control systems
  • Evaluate design alternatives, including both technical and economic analysis
  • Lead projects using a full suite of management tools
  • Understand group and individual dynamics, leading to more effective interactions
  • Identify and mitigate operational risks.

In 2009, WPI began offering these programs online. More than 300 individuals have completed degrees or certificates to date, with another 180 part-time students currently enrolled in the programs. In addition, WPI has full-time graduate students studying power.

WPI’s power-related research efforts are growing as well, and on several fronts:

  • In electrical engineering, Professors Alex Emanuel and John Orr are conducting sponsored research on energy storage on the distribution grid (sponsored by Premium Power, National Grid and the U.S. Department of Energy).
  • In mechanical engineering, Professor Yan Wang received the 2013 Catalyst Award from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center for his work on utility-scale battery storage applications.
  • In chemical engineering, Professors Ravi Datta and Yi Hua “Ed” Ma are conducting research on fuel cells and the production of hydrogen (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy).

Undergraduate student interest in power is growing rapidly. In academic year 2012, 11 WPI students won scholarships as part of the IEEE Power & Energy Society Scholarship Plus initiative. Enrollment in recent undergraduate power courses was two to four times higher than WPI’s typical class size:

  • 80 students enrolled in Introduction to Contemporary Electric Power Systems in spring 2013
  • 38 students enrolled in Electrical Energy Conversion in fall 2013
  • 53 students enrolled in Power Electronics in fall 2013.

Results for National Grid

Today, more than 50% of National Grid’s engineering staff is eligible for retirement over the next five years, with the average age of the workforce being more than 50 years old. At the same time, National Grid is growing its capital investment plans, subject to more stringent regulatory oversight, and implementing technology advances in system equipment. The impact of this turnover includes more than the traditional paths for hiring and developing talent. National Grid will need to leverage its partnership with WPI and, most likely, grow the program.

Two tracks were developed with the first being leadership and advanced-level power courses. This track has been well received, and many of the students engaged in the program have continued with WPI and completed a master’s degree in engineering using National Grid’s tuition-reimbursement program. The second track, delivering some much-needed skills, is a focused series of protection courses. Many of the students on this track also used these courses toward completing higher degrees.

National Grid has begun to see real benefits from its partnership with WPI. Employees are moving into leadership roles earlier in their careers than in the past. Their higher level of engineering expertise has been supportive in assisting less-tenured engineers to take on greater and more challenging projects than has been possible in recent years. Employee retention also has been good.

One unexpected benefit of the partnership has been the number of diverse employees attracted to National Grid. Having the program for post-graduate education on the WPI campus builds interest in the utility. During a significant turnover in National Grid’s transmission structural engineering department, a number of women graduates came from WPI. As a result, this is now one of the few engineering departments in the utility industry with a greater than 50% female composition.

Engineers engaging in just-in-time training to apply their newly gained knowledge to ever-changing workplace demands has been a success. It is the talented engineers who are improving on, creating and deploying new ideas and technologies to ensure National Grid delivers safe and reliable service to its customers.

National Grid recognizes this development of technical skills requires the learning opportunities that spark creativity and help people to develop the skills to take on new challenges. Overall, the WPI partnership has been a big part of National Grid’s employee training plans and employee retention.

Student Survey Results

In 2012, WPI conducted a survey of the overall effectiveness of its graduate power systems engineering programs delivered through corporate and professional education. In all, 113 students from seven cohorts (four companies) were surveyed, and 25 students from all four companies responded (a 22% response rate):

  • 100% rated the overall program as excellent (32%), very good (48%) or good (20%); none rated the program as either fair or poor
  • 100% rated instructor quality as excellent (28%), very good (48%) or good (24%); none rated the instructors as either fair or poor
  • 100% agreed they can apply the learning to their current position
  • 70% said the program encouraged them to stay with their current employer.

Building Tomorrow

In 2012, to build on these successes, National Grid joined the nation’s Engineering Student Ambassador Network with a program at WPI. The engineering student ambassadors are WPI undergraduates who are changing the conversation about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

After specialized training, these 12 undergraduates visit regional middle and high schools with presentations on the power industry and the smart grid. They reached 1,200 precollege students last year and their goal for this year is to reach 2,000. These student ambassadors are also interns who help staff National Grid’s sustainability hub in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S. They help to explain National Grid’s smart grid pilot program to the local community.

The National Grid-WPI partnership is helping to meet today’s power education challenge by building a pipeline of talented leaders for the power industry — all the way from middle school to practicing professionals.


Marie Jordan ([email protected]) is the senior vice president of network strategy for National Grid, where she develops the overall strategy for National Grid’s gas and electric assets, the investment portfolio, and the performance of U.S. infrastructure and engineering associated with capital projects for transmission and distribution systems. Her education background is in both electrical engineering and business accounting.

Michael F. Ahern (mfahern@wpi.edu) is the director of power systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Prior to joining WPI in 2012, he rose to the vice president level over a 30-year career including generation, transmission, distribution and services at Northeast Utilities. Ahern earned a bachelor’s degree from WPI and master’s and MBA degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Companies mentioned:

National Grid | www.nationalgridus.com

Worcester Polytechnic Institute | www.wpi.edu

 

Sidebar: WPI Graduate Power Programs

Engineering Courses

  • Power System Analysis
  • Transients in Power Systems
  • Electromechanical Energy Conversion
  • Power System Protection and Control
  • Protective Relaying
  • Advanced Applications in Protective Relaying
  • Power System Dynamics 
  • Power Distribution
  • Power System Operation and Planning
  • Electric Power Transmission
  • Computer and Network Security
  • Renewable Energy

Business Courses

  • Project Management
  • Group & Interpersonal Dynamics in Complex Organizations
  • Operations Risk Management
  • Engineering Economics

 

Sidebar: A Career Foundation for Kasia

Kasia Kulbacka knew she was destined to become an engineer when, as a toddler, she was captivated with how things worked and was always taking apart her older sister’s mechanical toys. She also knew the value of education and that it would require hard work and dedication to pursue a technical degree. What she did not know was how fascinated she would become by the world of power engineering.

Choosing Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to obtain a BSEE degree was easy for Kaisa. The school had a great reputation, it was conveniently located in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S., and she had won a small scholarship to attend WPI. While at WPI, she gained basic knowledge about the three-phase power systems, but, when taking lectures on transmission line design and operation, she thought she would never get a chance to apply that theory in practice.

That changed when she joined National Grid in January 2005 as a protection engineer. Because of increasing customer and industry demands throughout the years, the engineering organization at National Grid had grown, which, in turn, had allowed for individual growth and development throughout Kasia’s career. Today, as an engineering manager, Kasia is responsible for a group of seven individuals under the department of policy and support within the larger protection and telecommunications engineering organization. Her team has considerable expertise in system disturbance analysis, as well as fault record collection and retrieval.

However, Kasia learned quickly that she needed to expand her knowledge in the field of power engineering to succeed. The power systems management certificate program offered at WPI and sponsored by National Grid was a perfect fit to continue her education. It allowed her to understand power engineering principles, starting from power systems, to power delivery and quality, to understanding the impacts of transients in power systems.

With several renowned industry experts staffing the WPI educational team, the curriculum was challenging and required a high degree of discipline and commitment. The program was created with developing successful individuals in mind. The quality and depth of the program proved to be the foundation Kasia needed to accelerate her career on both the technical and leadership fronts.

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