In most areas of the country, we still have a disconnect between industry and academia. I hate to admit it, but a lot of the blame lies with our utility executives. At one time, most universities had power programs where students could get a good pragmatic education, and energy was core to the curriculum.
But then, starting maybe 20 years ago, utilities found themselves under financial duress and went through downsizings and mass layoffs. Executives did not see much reason to invest in their local universities if they would not be partaking of the output — graduating engineers. So the energy programs languished while the universities shifted their focus to highgrowth areas, including electronics and telecom.
I’m pleased to share that in some regions of the country, I am seeing a resurgence of industry-supported power programs, with the University of Pittsburgh and Worchester Polytechnic Institute being top of mind.
But what might be the biggest university/industry partnership in the country is located on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina. The Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) is unique in that it was founded by industry executives, including former Duke Power CEO Jim Rogers and like-minded business leaders, who needed access to more highly qualified energy engineers. EPIC opened its Strategic Director 200,000-sq-ft building in the fall of 2012 with classrooms and laboratories as well as space available for industrial partners. EPIC, located within the Lee College of Engineering, aims to educate multidisciplinary energy students, perform energy research and boost economic development in the region.
Johan Enslin, the director of EPIC, invited me to Charlotte for a visit. As a mechanical engineer, I was mesmerized with the million-pound, 32-ft-high wall where EPIC researchers can evaluate transmission foundations and tower sections. While I was there, researchers were testing the remaining strength of Duke’s wood distribution poles. Because the center is multidisciplinary, researchers have access to an environmental lab where they can evaluate the condition of individual fibers and determine residual wood preservatives, which will enable Duke to develop a condition-based strategy for a pole changeout program.
I also checked out the power-delivery laboratory that can accommodate voltages up to 150 kV, along with medium-voltage and low-voltage testing, as well as a high-current/low-voltage test bed. Current transformers to loop current through underground cables were being installed while I was there. I also toured the Duke Energy Smart Grid Laboratory, where students were running simulated events on real utility network data using the same hardware and software they will be using when they graduate. How cool is that? The laboratories are interspersed with classrooms so students can get a real hands-on feel for the profession they will enter. UNC-Charlotte also offers Master of Science, PhD and MBA degrees all with an energy concentration for those who want to further their education.
We have been living with an unfortunate situation where too many graduating engineers are taking few if any energy-focused courses. Thank goodness that is now changing. We must equip the next generation to tackle the serious energy issues our world faces. We need more bold initiatives like EPIC so that academia and industry can collaborate to address the technical and staffing issues we now face as we shift our energy mix and the ways we deliver that energy.