T&D World Magazine

Ralph Fehr: 'Master the Concepts'

Since entering the power engineering workforce in 1980, Ralph Fehr has worked with many outstanding engineers. These engineers constitute a diverse group, but all have one characteristic in common: they all thoroughly understand the basic concepts that they apply in their engineering designs, Fehr said.

Fehr, a full-time faculty member at the University of South Florida, said that all too often, engineering is reduced to a process of obtaining answers without truly understanding the problem that is being solved.

"This tendency has its roots in academia, where students frequently approach problems by searching for an equation into which given numerical values can be substituted," he said. "While a plug-and-chug methodology may produce correct answers for some problems, the challenges we face today in the power and energy sector require a much deeper understanding of the problems to produce acceptable solutions."

Fehr has only been full-time at the University of South Florida in Tampa for three years, but has been teaching computer, mathematics, and engineering courses at various schools since 1986. Teaching has always been important to him.

"Not only do I enjoy helping others learn, but I also enjoy the challenges, and the resulting satisfaction, of clearly explaining a complicated concept to somebody who must understand the concept to do their job. The process of teaching is by far the best way to master a concept yourself," Fehr said.

Teaching and engineering have always had a major influence on Fehr. His father, Ralph II, worked for more than 33 years as a power engineer for Metropolitan Edison and General Public Utilities in Reading, Pennsylvania. His mother, Estelle, and grandmother, Debbie Hill, although not schoolteachers by profession, would be ideal role models for any educator because of the life lessons and can-do attitude they taught. His uncle, Arthur Hill, taught electrical engineering for more than 38 years at the Pennsylvania State University. And through various campus service organizations and individual effort, Fehr has tutored students in numerous areas for many years. He has tutored students in math every year for the past 30 years.

Fehr began working for Gilbert/Commonwealth Engineers and Consultants in his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, as a co-op student while earning his BSEE at Penn State. His assignments were in the electrical engineering units of the nuclear and fossil power plant design sections. In this first exposure to the power industry, he saw the need to balance theoretical understanding with practical application. After graduating, Fehr moved west to work as an operations engineer and later as a distribution engineer for Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) in Albuquerque. Again, examples mounted, showing the importance of being able to apply theory to solve a problem instead of simply performing a process to arrive at an answer.

While working at PNM, Fehr earned his Masters degree in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. A graduate degree was never a specific goal for Fehr, but gaining a better understanding of his chosen profession was. The degree was a result of pursuing the knowledge that Fehr sought to become a better engineer.

Fehr worked with the U.S. Air Force for four years starting in 1988, serving as Deputy Associate Director for Energy Matters at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition to being responsible for the facility’s transmission and distribution infrastructure, Fehr also oversaw the natural gas, steam, water, and sewer systems at one of the largest installations under control of the Air Force, hosting close to 200 tenants occupying over 2000 buildings. The learning curve was steep, but by making an effort to understand the concepts underlying the procedures, Fehr quickly became acclimated to his new position.

In 1992, Fehr moved east to work as a transmission engineer for Florida Power Corp. (FPC) in St. Petersburg, Florida. There, he developed and implemented software to assist in the design of transmission lines. This assignment was a perfect example of the direct application of fundamental concepts to the solution of unique engineering problems through the medium of computer-aided design and drafting software. Fehr later worked in the energy control and system planning groups of FPC before moving to Tampa Electric Co. in the year 2000, where he served as a senior consulting engineer in the transmission planning department. It was at this point in his career that Fehr chose to complete his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida, and “regress into academia” as many of his friends jokingly put it. Being part of academia is the best way to influence the engineers of the future. This is how the future of engineering is molded.

Fehr will be teaching a course, Power System Analysis Skills for Engineers and Technicians, for the University of Wisconsin – Madison from Jan. 26 to 28, 2009, in Orlando, Florida. This course emphasizes the fundamental concepts behind the most common types of power engineering calculations. The method of symmetrical components is presented in a novel way, which provides the student with insight that is lacking when approaching the topic from a purely mathematical perspective.

Fehr lives in Tampa, Florida, with his wife Karen, boys Clayton and Will, and Buddy – a two year old canine family member. "Buddy teaches us so much by reminding us that spending time with loved ones is the most important thing in life."

Fehr enjoys family activities and travel, and never misses an opportunity to work with youngsters. "Engaging children with math and science at an early age is the single most important thing an engineer can do to better the profession in the future," he said.

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