Gonzaga Universitys School of Engineering plans to launch a graduate-level certificate program for engineers next fall in response to growing demand for specialists in the power industry.
The transmission and distribution (T&D) engineering program will be a five-semester program designed for engineering professionals in the U.S. and undergraduate students at Gonzaga, says Dennis Horn, dean of the engineering school. Gonzaga will offer an online version of the program initially, and hopes to start offering classes on campus in 2007, he says. Eventually, it hopes to provide a masters program that would combine the course work of the certificate program with other graduate-level business and management courses, Horn says.
Gonzaga is working with Washington D.C.-based JesuitNET, which is a network of U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities that develop and share online academic programs, to set up its online certificate program, he says.
The university currently is seeking to raise roughly $8 million to expand the Engineering Schools Herak Center, Horn says. That project, which would provide more classroom and laboratory space on the south end of the building for the T&D engineering program and other engineering classes, is expected to start within the next 18 months, he says.
Having an adequate supply of such engineers is crucial because they design and oversee the development of electrical power transmission systems that move hundreds of megawatts of electricity from generating plants to distribution substations, and on to the low-voltage networks that deliver electricity directly to consumers.
Whats concerning is that roughly half of the countrys 23,000 registered power engineers are expected to retire over the next 20 years, says a white paper about the T&D program that Gonzaga faculty members and academic administrators prepared and distributed to donors and members of the energy industry. Meanwhile, electricity consumption is projected to increase by at least 22 percent between 2001 and 2010, requiring power grid construction that calls for more power line engineers, the white paper says.
Gonzaga aims to alleviate the impending shortage by supplying the job market with engineers specifically trained in T&D engineering, Horn says.
Were trying to help the utility industry, Horn says. Were anxious to get this rolling.
Gonzaga hopes to have 75 students enrolled in its program by its fifth year, Horn says. The program is being developed by faculty members as well as a team of industry experts from utilities and energy suppliers in the region, says David James, interim program director at Gonzaga and transmission design manager at Spokane-based Avista Utilities. Those utilities include Avista Utilities and Inland Power & Light Co., among others, James says.
The university received a $750,000 federal grant last May, which it used to develop the programs curriculum, buy necessary equipment, and hire a program director, Horn says. The school also will receive an additional $800,000 federal grant this June that it will use to help finance its Herak Center expansion project, he says.
Initially, the program will include two courses during the fall semester, two in the spring, and one during the summer, all of which are 500-level, three-credit engineering courses, James says. Gonzaga eventually might offer all of the courses every semester, Horn says.
The fall course work will focus on structural engineering, in which students will learn the principles of designing overhead high-voltage power transmission towers, James says. During the spring, students will take a class on distribution engineering, in which they will learn how to choose wire sizes and how to regulate voltage to customers, among other things. The other spring semester class will involve electrical grid operations, in which students will study the bigger picture of how to manage a bulk power grid. Such interconnected grids make up the countrys energy infrastructure.
The final course, held during the summer, will cover project development and management, James says. Design engineers typically have to coordinate different aspects of building a transmission line, including the planning, budgeting, and permitting processes.
Gonzagas program is unique, both because it will be the only certificate program in the U.S. that will focus on power transmission and distribution, and because it will be multidisciplinary, combining civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, Horn claims. A few universities and private companies across the country offer short courses in transmission and distribution engineering, he says. Typically, though, employers have to provide on-the-job training, and hope that engineers pick up the pieces of information they need along the way, he says.
Engineering experts have said this will provide a five-year jump start (in training), and that productivity will increase dramatically, Horn says.
Transmission and distribution engineers do a large portion of the work needed to increase the reliability and efficiency of the nations energy infrastructure, Gonzagas white paper says.
The North American power grid originally was designed to connect neighboring utilities, but now electric companies are using it as more of a superhighway, especially since the deregulation of the energy industry in 1996, Gonzagas white paper says. That deregulation has led to job cutbacks to reduce costs and stay competitive, the document says. The Internet also has increased the burden on power lines. As a result of all those factors, congestion on the grid has driven up energy costs and created bottlenecks that lead to blackouts, the white paper says.
The economic impact of an overstretched and unreliable power system can be enormous. Transmission bottlenecks cost consumers more than $1 billion in the summers of 2000 and 2001, the white paper says. During the North American blackout in the summer of 2003, more than 50 million people in the northeastern U.S. and Canada lost power. The cost of the blackout in New York, Detroit, Toronto, and smaller communities in that region was an estimated $6 billion.
Aside from economic concerns, an efficient and reliable energy infrastructure is important for national security, especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the paper says. In the instance of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, a power-related catastrophe can be contained by providing alternative paths for distributing power during an emergency. That redundancy, however, doesnt currently exist.
Horn says Gonzaga began considering offering a transmission and distribution engineering program partly because alumni had become involved in that field and had encouraged it to do so. Also, Spokane is within a regional power cluster, including major power suppliers such as the Bonneville Power Administration, Avista Utilities, and Puget Sound Energy, the white paper says. Power-related companies such as Itron Inc., Itronix Corp., Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Inc., and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory also are located near Spokane.
James says Avista Utilities, like other utilities across the country, anticipates a shortage of workers in the T&D engineering field in the coming years. Avista offers a tuition reimbursement program to employees, but James doesnt know whether it will extend tuition reimbursement for Gonzagas certificate program.
Were faced with a lot of retirements and were trying to fill those positions, James says. Were creating bench strength, so there isnt a gap between that experience leaving the company.
Horn says he expects that many companies will offer tuition reimbursement for employees who participate.
Contact Emily Brandler at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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