Emeka Obikwelu: Understanding the Phenomenon of Power Failures

June 16, 2010
Growing up in Nigeria, Emeka Obikwelu experienced firsthand many unexplained power failures.

Growing up in Nigeria, Emeka Obikwelu experienced many unexplained power failures firsthand. A self-described tech-savvy child, Obikwelu always fixed things around the house and made his own toys just for the fun of it. That inventor’s nature prompted him to wonder why power failures happen, how long they last, and how they could be stopped so that he could "more frequently enjoy air conditioning on hot days.”

Obikwelu learned about the electric power system from loved ones as well as from his studies at DSC Technical High School in Warri, Delta State, Nigeria. He found more answers as he completed his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Wayne State University in Michigan. An internship with Michigan Electric Transmission Company gave Obikwelu real-world experience.

“With each answer came an impressive phantasmagoria of the sophistication of the electric power system—it reminded me of the beauty and sophistication of the ecosystem, and also of the complex network of blood vessels and nerves in the human body and those of animals,” he said. “It was then I decided to pursue a career in electric power engineering.”

Obikwelu will share his insights and experience with students at an upcoming course, Protecting Power Systems for Engineers, scheduled for July 19–23 in Chicago, Illinois. This course addresses the basic elements of designing power system protection for distribution lines, transmission lines, transformers, and buses.

An associate power instructor with Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) since the beginning of this year, Obikwelu previously worked for Commonwealth Associates Inc. as a substation engineer, consulting with such companies as American Electric Power, International Transmission Company, and others. In 2008, he became a power system protection engineer for Consumers Energy, where he was partially responsible for all relay setting projects and protection studies in the western part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. He also taught electronics and physics part-time at Spring Arbor University while working at Consumers Energy.

Obikwelu said his past experiences exposed him to various power engineering projects and topics that directly or indirectly relate to the courses he teaches at SEL—power system planning, power flow studies, contingency studies, load forecasting, substation design, substation automation, and more. But he is also careful not to overestimate his knowledge or underestimate that of his students. He calls education a dynamic process where instructor and student alike learn from one another.

“I want students to know that they can invest in the richness of the classroom experience through their course-related questions and experience-based comments,” he said. “The notion of the monologue of knowledge being imparted only from instructor to student is wholly erroneous and is a deplorable misuse (if not an abuse) of the student resource…

“Teaching and learning are lifelong components of my evolving personal and professional life,” added Obikwelu, who received his master of science in electrical engineering from Michigan Technological University. “Hence, my current role as a power instructor at SEL is a very welcome conglomeration of all my technical interests in one place.”

The upcoming SEL University course has particular importance because, as Obikwelu points out, every industry wholly or to a large extent depends on the health of the electric power system. Power loss ultimately translates to revenue loss, so a sound and cost-effective protection system is of paramount value in any electric power system.

“Protective relaying systems constitute the knights and sentinels of the electric power system. If they fail, the grid becomes vulnerable to a spectrum of failures, bearing repercussions that range from minor to fatal and catastrophic,” he said. “The power grid is a very, if not the most, complex physical system, and the means to protect it reliably are even more complex.

“The electrical power engineer must seize every opportunity to update her or his knowledge and expertise in power engineering so as not to become obsolete or ineffective in her or his job functions, which are bound to evolve synchronously with the evolution of the electric grid. The SEL University courses I and other instructors teach offer exactly this opportunity to stay in sync with developments in the electric power industry.”

When he’s not teaching, Obikwelu can be found at a gym three to four times a week working out to recharge. He also enjoys reading nonfiction, occasionally throwing in fiction related to Sherlock Holmes, a particular favorite. And while he may not make his own toys as he did in childhood, play is still just as important.

“Essentially I like to play in my spare times and just have simple, healthy fun,” he said. “Sometimes, I solve technical problems and analyze technical scenarios while I play; other times, I do nothing but play hard. Ultimately, I try to come out of my spare times rejuvenated.”

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