After more than 40 years, Eastern Washington entrepreneur Dr. Edmund O. Schweitzer, III, is still excited to come to work every morning. Schweitzer, the inventor of one of the most innovative devices used in the electric power system today—the digital protective relay—remains a driving creative force in the industry.
“Power systems are a modern marvel,” Schweitzer said. “They’re reliable. They’re economical. They’re efficient. They’re safe. And we have this most versatile form of energy at the flick of a switch for a great price. We pay for it maybe a month later, and it’s delivered to that wall outlet near you at the speed of light.”
Until the 1980s, power system protection was accomplished by analog relays, including electromechanical relays, which have moveable parts and cannot process data. In 1982, Schweitzer recognized the limitations of this century-old technology and invented a multifunction digital relay that would not only protect the power system but also record data and help locate faults.
A single digital relay replaces several analog relays, significantly improving reliability and reducing installation costs. Gradually, the adoption of the digital relay led to cost savings throughout the industry as well as significant improvements in reliability and situational awareness. Schweitzer’s digital relay led him to found Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) where he has served as president since in 1983. SEL has since created other innovative products that also capture huge amounts of power system data, which, in turn, provide critical information to operators and save enormous amounts of time and money.
Always looking for ways to improve, in 2012, Schweitzer envisioned the Modern Solutions Power Systems Conference (MSPSC) as a unique opportunity for industry experts to brainstorm far-reaching power industry ideas and solutions.
“We wanted to bust silos. And, we wanted to get ourselves thinking about where our industry has been, where we are going, and if are we on the right track.”
The MSPSC is a venue to examine power system challenges and discover solutions and strategies for moving forward. The 2013 MSPSC is happening this week in Chicago and is building upon the work begun at last year’s inaugural event. The conference is designed to encourage utility and industry leaders to come together and share their diverse perspectives on the state of the electric power system.
The MSPSC is just the latest of Schweitzer’s contributions to the electric power industry. In 2000, he founded SEL University (SELU) to help fill the need for continuing education and training for the next generation of power systems engineers and technicians. SELU offers a wide range of instructor-led and e-learning courses in protection, monitoring, automation, metering, and management of utility and industrial electric power systems—all taught by full-time SEL engineers who have practical, on-the-job experience.
In addition to SELU, Schweitzer’s list of accomplishments includes more than 70 U.S. and foreign patents pertaining to electric power system protection, metering, monitoring, and control as well as dozens of technical papers. He holds the grade of Fellow in the IEEE and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. And, in 2012, Schweitzer was a recipient of the IEEE Medal in Power Engineering, the highest award given by IEEE, for his leadership in revolutionizing the performance of electric power systems with computer-based protection and control equipment.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, and with degrees from Purdue and Washington State University, Schweitzer has been recognized internationally with honorary doctorate degrees from the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí and the Autonomous University of Nuevo León. He has served on the electrical engineering faculties of Ohio University and Washington State University, and has taught courses in electric power system analysis, electrical energy conversion, power system protection, electronics, and communications theory.
In the 30 years since Schweitzer’s revolutionary invention, the electric power industry has undergone many changes. Today, there is a greater variety of ways to generate power—nuclear, coal, wind, solar, hydro, thermo—and with these sources come a variety of ways to manage generation.
“People are expecting more and more out of the primary equipment—the transmission lines, the generation, the transformers that they have,” Schweitzer says. “We’ve got less control over the sources. We can’t make the wind blow or stop a cloud from going in front of a solar panel. And at the same time, we have a growing intolerance for blackouts, and we’re serving loads like data centers that are entirely intolerant of power outages.”
Innovation and investment in this capital-intensive industry require a lot of money. Compliance issues come to bear and sometimes compete with questions of doing the right thing.
“Power systems are changing,” Schweitzer said. “We’ve got faster dynamics caused by systems being pressed to greater limits. No longer is society willing to spend a lot of capital on robustness in the primary equipment.”
Even with—or because of—these challenges, electrical engineers and computer scientists can look forward to exciting challenges ahead. An aging workforce means now is the time to prepare the engineering students of today for the plentiful opportunities that will soon arise. Today’s power system challenges can be rigorous, but—for engineers of all types—rigorous challenges mean fun.
Working on these kinds of challenging and important issues, driving innovation, and focusing on simplicity provide fun for Schweitzer and his employees every day at SEL. Headquartered in Pullman, Washington, SEL designs, manufactures, and supports a complete line of power industry products and services that are used in more than 135 countries around the world. It operates more than 55 offices in the United States and more than 40 internationally. SEL manufactures its products in Pullman, Washington; Lewiston, Idaho; Lake Zurich, Illinois; and San Luis Potosí, Mexico.