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Positions of Power PUBLIC ACCESS

Engineering to Meet Electricity Needs is Shaping up as a Big Job, With Plenty of Openings.

[+] Author Notes

Jack Thornton is a technical writer and principal of MIND-FEED Marcomm in Santa Fe, N.M.

Mechanical Engineering 132(01), 42-45 (Jan 01, 2010) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2010-Jan-5

This article discusses the reasons behind shortage of engineers and engineering jobs in the United States. Power generation faces shortages of people at all levels with the skills required to get big new projects designed, approved, funded, and built, which is largely the result of three decades of little new investment. With the anticipated workload, it is little wonder that power-generation industry leaders are deeply worried about the supply of engineers between roughly 2015 and 2040. Research shows that the utility companies reduced their engineering staffs in the 1990s, and vital skills have gone away. Those engineers took jobs with contractors and consulting firms, moved to other industries, or retired. The disappearance of traditional energy–industry career paths has worsened a long-term US educational problem—the shift away from science and math by students and educators. Experts suggest that industry’s answers to job shortage challenges include persuading engineers of the older generation to work past normal retirement age and developing knowledge transfer initiatives for engineers entering the workforce.

Is there a shortage of engineers in the United States? Or is there a shortage of engineering positions instead? The answer depends on whom you ask—and on where you look.

One answer: There is an acute shortage of jobs in the U.S. Great Lakes states (and Canada's eastern provinces) as layoffs and shutdowns have clobbered North America's industrial heartland. Thousands of manufacturing jobs for mechanical engineers have disappeared in the past few years, possibly forever.

Another answer: A shortage of engineers seems to be developing in southern and southwestern states where population and jobs continue to increase. The power-generation industry and electric utility companies there expect a major rebuild and expansion of the electrical infrastructure.

For engineers with manufacturing backgrounds, some eye-opening statistics were offered by Jeffrey S. Nelson, head of the Energy and Infrastructure Future Group at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.:

  • World energy demand will double between now and 2030. That's only 20 years, half the span of an engineering career.

  • The amount of clean U.S. energy needed by 2050 just to stabilize CO2 is 10 trillion watts. This is about ten times the Department of Energy's estimate of today's total installed U.S. generating capacity.

Achieving these numbers will require a broad mix of energy sources, including renewables, biofuels, and possibly fusion, Nelson said, pointing out that all of these will require big, costly, and intensive engineering and scientific programs.

Another researcher in the power industry, Gary Golden, senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, certainly sees a shortage. “If you crunch all the numbers, the power industry has about 10 percent of the engineers we need,” Golden said.

It would seem a simple solution if mechanical engineers who lost their jobs in general manufacturing and the automotive industry can find positions in the energy industries, but it isn’t that easy. Questions remain that no one can answer with certainty today. For instance, which manufacturing skills can be adapted to generating power instead of churning out physical goods? And for mechanical engineers willing to make the leap, will plunging home values, especially in Michigan where so many formerly worked, make relocation financially difficult?

For young and mid-career engineers in North America, the answers to these questions will take some time to sort out. Many in the power industry, including Rick Eaton, 2008-2009 Power Section chair for ASME, are concerned that there are big mismatches in the required skills.

The output of a manufacturing facility is almost infinitely varied and constantly changing; so are the production machinery and methods. No two factories are alike, and output is in pieces or units. In power generation the output is a constant flow of electrons. And since electrons are identical, there is little variation in most equipment and processes. Compared with the manufacture of goods, there are far fewer variations in the ways that electricity is produced.

Manufacturers are beset with competitors at every turn while utilities have almost none. The history of regulation in the electric-power business makes manufacturing seem like a free-for-all.

Despite these differences, the power-generation industry is optimistic that some mechanical engineers from manufacturing will make the transition. According to Eaton, the engineering skills most in demand are for piping and equipment design; fire protection; heating, ventilating, and air conditioning; power plant systems; nuclear systems; plant operations; and stress analysis. Some engineers from manufacturing have experience in these areas, but many do not, he said.

Power generation faces shortages of people at all levels with the skills required to get big new projects designed, approved, funded, and built. This is largely the result of three decades of little new investment in power generation, most industry leaders agree. As manager of project engineering at a global construction firm serving the energy industries worldwide, Eaton added, “We want lots of construction experience.”

“Power generation faces shortages of people at all levels with the skills required to get big new projects designed, approved, funded, and built. This is largely the result of three decades of little new investment.”

Qualified engineers, Eaton said, will be put to work on the four big issues in power generation:

  • Securing a balanced supply of all types of economically viable fuels from Middle Eastern oil to biomass and renewables.

  • Modernization of generating machinery, plants, and transmission and distribution systems.

  • Conservation to slow the long-term grow thin demand.

  • New technologies to control emissions and the carbon-buildup aspects of global warming,

Engineers and engineering students hoping to avoid the difficulties of manufacturing in North America might want to sort the potential opportunities along four timelines, according to Nelson from Sandia Labs:

Here and now. Human resources staffs at dozens of power producers say hundreds of jobs are open in coal, nuclear, and natural-gas operations. The industry also seeks engineers for systems and equipment design; maintenance and outage management, including refueling the nation's commercial nuclear reactors; and thermal performance. This period also includes scale-ups of carbon sequestration, nuclear operations, and renewables—solar, wind, tidal, etc. The engineering issues are systems design, construction, and operating efficiency.

In a few years and for decades thereafter. By 2030, America's generating capacity needs to expand by 200 to 500 new plants, according DOE data cited by Nelson in a presentation to ASME's Power 2009 conference last July. The distribution grid also needs rebuilding and expansion with tens of thousands of miles of high-voltage power lines. Peak U.S. summertime electricity demand grows 1.5 percent a year, three times faster than transmission capacity, which has been growing an average of 0.5 percent a year.

“ The electric power industry has already lost many of its engineers. Utility companies reduced their engineering staffs in the ’90s, and vital skills have gone away. Engineers took jobs in other industries, or retired. ”

Now and for the foreseeable future. New energy sources will be developed, demonstrated, funded, and deployed, despite major technical and economic challenges in all of them. Engineers will eventually overcome the drawbacks in renewables and biofuels as well as the difficulties in new sources such as oil shale and tar sands. The engineering challenges again will be feasibility, cost control, and securing funds for demonstration projects.

In the long term. Futuristic energy sources like fusion and hydrogen may prove feasible. Researchers and engineers will push the boundaries of high-temperature materials and high-energy physics. For these engineers, the challenges may well be writing doctoral dissertations and securing fellowships at places like Sandia.

Nelson continued: “The basic challenge in all of these starts with developing a predictable business environment, which includes investment portfolio standards, production tax credits, a streamlined permitting processes, and growing the manufacturing supply chain.”

This means, he added, that thousands of engineers will be engaged for many years in:

  • Renewable-energy grid integration demonstration projects to validate the need for the new transmission and distribution capacity.

  • Intelligent utility-to-home grid networks to ensure optimum distribution of power.

  • Storage of power, including but not limited to electricity.

  • Power electronics, communications, and controls to better manage the electrical grid.

  • Cyber security.

  • Nanomaterials ,especially in photovoltaics.

  • Renewable liquid fuels, including a program at Sandia known as “Sunshine to Petrol.”

  • Reliability improvements in the existing grid.

With this anticipated workload, it is little wonder that power-generation industry leaders are deeply worried about the supply of engineers between roughly 2015 and 2040. Golden of EPRI pointed out that trends in school enrollments and curricula are not encouraging for meeting the power industry's engineering needs. U.S. engineering schools confer about 400,000 baccalaureate degrees annually in science and engineering, and the numbers grow slowly if at all.

That portends serious shortages if the coming Baby Boom retirements coincide with rebuilding America's energy infrastructure, said Golden, who is active in education efforts with both EPRI and ASME. An expert in turbine and generator performance, he works from EPRI's Knoxville, Tenn., office.

Coal accounts for just under half of U.S. electricity production, according to the DOE's Energy Information Administration. Nuclear fission and combustion of natural gas each provide about an additional one-fifth each. Hydroelectricity accounts for another 6 percent. All other renewables together account for 2.5 percent. Petroleum generates 1.6 percent. Net power generation from all sources was 4,157 million megawatt hours. This is 2007 data, the latest available. (Source: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epa_sum.html)

Grahic Jump LocationCoal accounts for just under half of U.S. electricity production, according to the DOE's Energy Information Administration. Nuclear fission and combustion of natural gas each provide about an additional one-fifth each. Hydroelectricity accounts for another 6 percent. All other renewables together account for 2.5 percent. Petroleum generates 1.6 percent. Net power generation from all sources was 4,157 million megawatt hours. This is 2007 data, the latest available. (Source: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epa_sum.html)

Moreover, the electric power industry has already lost many of its engineers. Golden and Eaton both pointed out that the utility companies reduced their engineering staffs in the 1990s, and vital skills have gone away. Those engineers took jobs with contractors and consulting firms, moved to other industries, or retired.

Power-Gen's Financial Challenge

The continuing credit squeeze has created an unexpected new speedbump in America's road to a secure energy future. According to a key analyst, Edward J. Tirello, Jr. of Berenson & Co., lack of investment and credit have created uncertainty about how the power-generation industry will evolve in the next 20 years—a period in which demand for electricity is widely expected to double.

Speaking as managing director and senior power strategist for Berenson, a financial analysis firm in New York City, Tirello pointed out that the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that about 150,000 megawatts of new generating capacity will be needed by 2030 or there abouts. That equals the output of 200 to 500 new plants, depending on size and location. Also needed by then will be the replacement or refurbishment of 200,000 MW of aging facilities—an even larger number of plants.

He believes that the U.S. electric-generating industry will find it costly, and possibly difficult, to borrow and repay hundreds of billions of dollars it will need if it is to meet this forecasted demand.

Tirello sees financial risks everywhere for the energy industry. He said that the industry's engineers must make sure every risk to investors—Berenson's clients—is fully and candidly evaluated. He outlined numerous engineering and business challenges, all of which are interconnected:

  • There is a complete lack of a U.S. national energy policy. “All we have is endless discussions on policy options from 47 different government agencies.” Too much discussion focuses on renewables that currently meet only a tiny fraction of the U.S. demand. That fraction is growing steadily, he noted, but only with billions of dollars in ongoing subsidies.

  • Powers of eminent domain are insufficient. The nation's aging transmission and distribution grid needs to be expanded by tens of thousands of miles of power lines. This is critical for large-scale solar and wind energy projects, he pointed out, since the most promising sites are far from demand centers. Yet regulators, legislators, and the media are almost always hostile to new power lines. One engineering challenge is to show all these senior energy-policy makers that the promises of renewables cannot be met without a big expansion in America's grid.

  • Investment rating agencies, which missed the Enron debacle and the mortgage-backed securities implosion, “are taking it out on the [electric utility] industry, lowering bond ratings and raising the cost of capital.” Engineers will have to redouble their efforts to find and conclusively demonstrate cost-effective solutions.

  • State regulators and politicians continue to oppose nearly all requests for rate relief. “Regulators have to be part of the business model. They cannot be kept out of the planning and development until it's time for a gono go decision. The decision then will always be no go.” The challenge for engineers is to learn to work side by side with corporate executives, lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations experts in rate proceedings.

To say that tomorrow's engineers will have to overcome these dilemmas with fewer resources is a huge understatement, Tirello said.

Many jobs relocated overseas. “A great deal of engineering work has been outsourced,” Eaton said, “or turned into a commodity with standardized calculations.”

This disappearance of traditional energy-industry career paths has worsened a long-term U.S. educational problem—the shift away from science and math by students and educators. “As the demand for engineering skills fell during the 1990s,” Golden noted, “many professors and institutions dropped the relevant curricula due to lack of interest. Courses in engineering, technical procurement, and construction tailored to the power industry also disappeared.”

Golden is also dismayed by the disappearance of math and science programs in the elementary and secondary schools. “We rely on these programs to feed students into the engineering colleges,” he said. “It's not happening any more. The feeder system is broken.” Golden is equally dismayed that American engineering seems to have lost its innovative edge.

Both Eaton and Golden said the industry's answers to these challenges include persuading engineers of the Baby Boomer generation to work past normal retirement age and developing knowledge transfer initiatives for engineers entering the workforce.

So is there a shortage of engineers? Or is there a shortage of engineering jobs in the United States? The answer to both questions is yes and, at this time, those answers present a rallying call to mechanical engineers and all who employ them.

Editor's Note: Nelson of Sandia Labs and Tirello of Berenson & Co. were keynote speakers at the ASME's Power 2009 conference last July in Albuquerque. Eaton chaired that conference. Golden of EPRI conducted a panel discussion on the industry's workforce and human factors.

Copyright © 2010 by ASME
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