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Educating the Next Generation of Power Engineers
Educating the Next Generation of Power Engineers


What is going to happen to the power distribution system as more electric vehicles (EVs) hit the road and more power hungry electronic devices become integrated into our daily routines? In what ways will new transmission and sensor technologies change the way the grid operates? Where will major utilities turn to when they need questions like these answered, and who will provide a well-trained work force capable of implementing solutions?

Dr. Robert Bass of the department of Electrical & Computer Engineering would like organizations such as Portland General Electric (PGE) and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to turn to Portland State University students and graduates trained in the PGE Foundation Power Engineering Education Laboratory. To be sure students and graduates are available when the industry calls, Dr. Bass partners with industry heavyweights like BPA and PGE to provide his students with hands-on experience in real-world engineering projects.

“My focus is on making sure that students at PSU have a very good engineering education,” Dr. Bass said. “That they’re sought after by the industry. I want to create a positive feedback loop where the industry recognizes that PSU produces quality engineers and so continues to come to us with projects so we can continue, in turn, to produce quality engineers.”

One such project is a study of EV charging on power distribution systems conducted at the Electric Avenue site on the PSU campus, which was funded by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC), the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Drive Oregon. As Dr. Bass explains it, the distribution system was designed to power our household appliances: washers, refrigerators, dishwashers, and so on. The system was not, however, designed for modern electronics. Up to this point that hasn’t been much of a problem as televisions, computers, and the like don’t draw that much power. Now we have EVs, which drain as much power as a dryer, tapping into the system, and their numbers are growing, projected to reach 3 million sold a year by 2020 according to a Navigant Research study.

“It’s possible EVs could have an impact on the distribution system,” Dr. Bass said. “We’re trying to analyze the power quality of various EV charging setups in order to see if we can make a projection of the impact power quality can have. In the end, we’d like to provide distribution engineers with tools with which they can design upgrades and future distribution systems.”

With sales of EVs growing by 40 percent annually according to another study, this one conducted by Pike Research and cited in, and Type II and DC Quick Charging stations sprouting like weeds on city streets and in commercial parking lots, getting a handle on how EVs are going to impact distribution systems may help power utilities prepare for the implications of a possible mass migration from gasoline to electric powered vehicles. Through various projects, Dr. Bass and his students are working to provide utilities the data they need to implement the best practices and technologies going forward. 

In a separate project sponsored by the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (BEST), and BPA, students in the PGE Foundation Power Engineering and Education Laboratory are analyzing data from synchrophasors, devices that provide distribution system managers real-time measurements of the electrical qualities from across the power system.

“This is a technology that has been widely implemented by BPA, PGE and other utilities,” Dr. Bass said. “Essentially, it’s a meter utilities can use to measure power and frequency in a large system that can cover multiple states over an entire region. What we’re trying to do is develop methods for detecting errors in the data collected by the synchrophasors.”

Each project Dr. Bass brings into the PGE Foundation Power Engineering Laboratory provides his students with an opportunity to engage in practical applications of power engineering. This is not the standard, in the classroom, approach to learning. According to Dr. Bass, these projects let students be creative and work on open-ended questions—they give them a chance to solve problems whose answers cannot be found in the back of a book.

“In the Lab the students are doing something that’s akin to actual engineering. They’re building from the design cycle. They’re reviewing their work. They’re putting together their designs and iterating from one layer of design to the next.

“I like to see students walking out of here understanding long-term thinking, ways to see large-scale projects. Being able to work together in groups and find their own resources. I want to see them working on projects they’ll face in the industry and not problems in a text book.”

The PGE Foundation Power Engineering Education Laboratory is a place where students and the power industry can come face to face to take on the challenges of changing technologies. Dr. Robert Bass, in association with organizations like PGE, BPA, and OTREC, Drive Oregon, Portland State University and the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science’s department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, is equipping future power utilities employees with the skills and experiences they’ll need to join a workforce responsible for designing and maintaining a 21st Century power grid.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 18, 2013