Where there's a gap, there's opportunity.
Right now, the United States is grappling with a huge gap – the distance between a growing number of alternate energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, and our aging, ailing power grid.
That gap means there’s opportunity for engineers of every ilk willing to work on technologies that capture alternative power in remote locations (the desert, say, or the windy U.S. Plains states) and move it onto the grid so it can get to the populace that needs it.
In a wide-ranging article in August 2008, the New York Times called the gap a “broad national problem,” saying, "Expansive dreams about renewable energy, like Al Gore’s hope of replacing all fossil fuels in a decade, are bumping up against the reality of a power grid that cannot handle the new demands."
“The dirty secret of clean energy,” the story concludes, “is that while generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.”
To be sure, some of the challenges are political – “the grid” is not a single entity, but an unruly and difficult-to-govern patchwork of transmission lines that interconnect multiple private utility companies. The rest of puzzle is technical, says Robert Fletcher, an associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., and director of the school’s Alternative Energy Engineering program. It’s a puzzle that calls for a wide range of engineers –mechanical, civil, computer science, architectural, hydraulic, and logistical. “There are lots and lots of opportunities in this field,” Fletcher emphasizes.
On a micro level, corporate, government and academic entities that are building facilities with solar, wind or geothermal energy components need help connecting such sources with existing building or campus power systems, Fletcher explains. That includes efficiently converting the DC power that such alternative systems generate into AC power that matches the existing electrical systems which most entities still rely upon.
On a macro level, utilities will be seeking out grid engineers from a variety of different specialties to help them figure out how to move large amounts of energy from the places where it’s cheaply produced – windy North Dakota, for example, or the super-sunny Mojave Desert – to the places where consumers need it, primarily the populous cities of the Northeast and Southwest.
The need for grid engineers is just part and parcel of the larger interest in engineers with expertise in alternative energy sources. “The students in my program wind up getting jobs months before they graduate,” Fletcher reports. “The utility companies have extreme interest in anyone who has experience in alternative energy. They’re serious about exploring these systems as ways to complement and supplement the need for power without building more coal-fired power plants, and they need people to help them do that.”