Rejuvenating an aging workforce

Brian O’Boyle was not expecting the email from the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, but he is embracing the career change it led him to.

O’Boyle was working as a tutor in his home state of Connecticut a little over a year ago when he received a message inviting him to consider Lehigh’s new graduate program in energy systems engineering.

Last summer, he became one of 25 students to enroll in the inaugural class of the 10-month program, which leads to a master’s of engineering in a field with increasing job opportunities.

O’Boyle, who earned a B.A. in physics from Franklin & Marshall College in 2008, says the new program is an ideal fit.

“I’ve always been curious to find out how things work. Getting reliable electricity 24 hours a day starts with a fuel source that has to be mined or drilled, processed, generated into energy, and distributed. To learn how this entire system works is fascinating to me.”

Giving students a thorough grounding in the generation and transmission of power, and its effect on the economy and the environment, is one of the two goals of Lehigh’s Energy Systems Engineering Institute (ESEI), which was established earlier this year.
Preparing for a retirement exodus

Training future leaders for an industry with an aging workforce is the second. According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Labor, a quarter to a third of America’s utility industry workers will be eligible for retirement by 2012. The Center for Energy Workforce Development, in a 2007 study, said 46 percent of the engineers working in power industries could retire by 2012, and added that the number of replacements being trained to fill that void is declining.

“The energy industry,” says ESEI director Andrew Coleman ’90, “needs young workers who understand power generation, the grid that transmits and distributes power, and the overall environmental impact of energy use.

“At the same time, the nation needs to move toward greater energy efficiency and alternative fuels that promote a sustainable environment.”

Coleman, who holds a B.A. in geology from Lehigh, an M.A. from the City College of New York and a Ph.D. in structural geology from the City University of New York, returned to South Mountain this year from Palo Alto, Calif., where he was an account executive with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He has spent much of his career conducting research on contaminated soil and groundwater at manufactured gas plant sites that, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, processed coal and oil into gas for cooking, lighting and heating.

ESEI students take four core courses—Energy Generation, Energy Transmission and Distribution, Energy and the Environment, and Project Management—along with technical electives and a three- or six-credit project, for a total of 30 credits. In the projects, which are supervised by faculty members and industry representatives, students work on challenges facing the energy industry.
25 students, 25 individual paths

The topics that students are tackling in their project courses, says Coleman, run the gamut. One student is working at Public Service Entreprise Group of New Jersey on a new solar energy program, one with EPRI on aging infrastructure, and four with PPL Corp. of Allentown. In one PPL project, students are assessing the potential for renewable energy in Pennsylvania.

O’Boyle is working with Sean Gorman ’09 to investigate the costs to power plants of switching from a cooling system known as “once through” to a less environmentally invasive, closed system that relies on towers to recirculate cooling water. The project is supervised by Maulbetsch Consulting, a California-based company, and by EPRI, which is attempting to determine precise retrofitting costs.

“There are a lot of factors involved,” says O’Boyle. “How large is the plant site, what is its history of land uses, is there buried piping near the plant, would a cooling tower obstruct the view of a nearby airport? We’ve been calling plant operators, using Google Earth and making occasional site visits to gather information.”

Coleman says the new program’s breadth gives it an advantage over similar programs at other universities.

“Our program is focused on the entire electric power industry. It strikes to the heart of the problem of creating a new work force. Our graduates will be ready in May to do real engineering and real project management.”

O’Boyle is impressed by the wealth of information he’s learned so far.

“Our project management course covered the capital investment decisions that go into building and upgrading a power plant. The course on power generation had units on coal, natural gas, nuclear power, solar and wind, as well as the history of the power industry. We’ve also learned about photovoltaic cells and semiconductors, the smart grid, and the metering of individual household appliances.

“The great thing about this program is that it’s not a cookie cutter. Not all 25 of us are going to come out with the same base of knowledge. Some of us will design nuclear reactors; some will work with biofuels. We will all shape our own paths.

“Energy and the environment are such pressing issues now. I’m excited to be part of a field that’s constantly evolving and very dynamic.”