Grant for scholarships aims to increase smart grid workforce

The $640,000 grant will provide 19 student scholarships per year over the next five years.

PULLMAN, Wash. - With a dramatic need for engineers to build a smart electric power grid, the National Science Foundation has awarded a grant to Washington State University for scholarship support for undergraduate and master's students in electric power engineering.

The $640,000 grant will provide 19 student scholarships per year over the next five years.

"There is a great national need for well-educated employees who have the necessary skills to work on what is described as the smart grid,'' said project leader Chen-Ching Liu, Boeing distinguished professor of electrical engineering and director of WSU's Energy Systems Innovation Center (ESI Center).The smart grid is an electricity network that can intelligently integrate the actions of all users connected to it – generators and consumers – in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economical and secure electricity supplies.

"This grant will help us to significantly increase enrollment in electric energy-related majors at WSU, which will positively impact the economy of the state of Washington and beyond,'' Liu said.

Responding to shortages

The U.S. is facing a shortage of engineers in the power and energy workforce with approximately 45 percent of engineers in the power industry eligible for retirement in the next five years.

There is also concern that the Northwest region is not producing enough engineers to meet the need for the growing green economy.

"Washington state has a world-class power sector that includes utility companies, power technology manufacturers, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and leading universities," Liu said. "Educating an outstanding pool of future leaders in power engineering will help the region maintain global leadership."

Leading the nationwide effort

At the same time, there has been a concerted effort to improve the national power grid and develop smart grid technologies. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided billions of dollars in federal and industry support for modernization of the power grid.

Working with researchers from WSU, the cities of Pullman and Spokane are both part of ongoing smart city projects. WSU's ESI Center is a national leader in smart grid education and research.

Five major partners in the state - including Alstom Grid, Avista Utilities, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, Puget Sound Energy and Tacoma Power - have agreed to collaborate with the ESI Center on the program.

"The new WSU scholarship grant takes a significant step toward addressing the workforce shortage we're experiencing in the field of power engineering,'' said Don Kopczynski, Avista vice president of energy delivery. "Beyond the classroom and curriculum, we know that leveraging resources from the power industry such as student internships and industry mentors creates a whole different level of learning. Providing real-world experiences helps prepare students entering the workforce – they are uniquely qualified for their first job."

More engineering students

WSU's power engineering program is the largest in Washington and, along with the rest of WSU's engineering and computer science programs, has grown significantly in the past few years.

Since 2000, the college has focused significant and successful efforts on retention of students, with a resulting 43 percent increase. Freshman interest in engineering and computer science has increased by 67 percent since 2006.

In 2012, the Washington state Legislature directed that $3.8 million used to support other programs at WSU and the University of Washington be spent to grow engineering and computer science enrollments to meet industry demand. The college is increasing the number of students by 425 students.

With the grant support, the ESI Center faculty team, including professors Liu, Ali Mehrizi-Sani and Bob Olsen, aim to expand the number of undergraduate students in WSU's power engineering program by 50 percent. They will focus, in particular, on women and groups traditionally underrepresented in the field.

"As Washington's land-grant university, WSU draws from a pool that often includes low-income, first generation students,'' said Liu. "This grant will help to assure accessibility for our students in this critical and exciting field.''

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