Don Kopczynski ’91 first noticed the power industry’s newest problem around the year 2000. The vice president for Avista Corp. counted 100 engineers on his team. Looking ahead, he realized that half of them would be retiring simultaneously. It made sense, since they all came out of school and entered the workforce at the same time. “We’ve been together our whole careers,’’ he says.

The looming shortage of engineers, though, is not limited to Avista. It’s a national issue, according to a recent survey by the Center for Energy Workforce Development. Fifty-one percent of engineers working in the power industry, including electric, natural gas, and nuclear utilities, could leave their jobs by 2015. That rate of retirement and attrition has slowed a little because of the downturn in the economy and losses in retirement savings plans. But that is only buying us a little time.

Don Kopczynski
Don Kopczynski (Courtesy Avista)

Today there are several key concerns for managing our country’s power resources: the aging workforce, the lack of energy training in the current pool of engineers, and changing technology. The utilities in our region “fattened up on this work force,’’ says Paul Wiegand, senior vice president of energy operations for Puget Sound Energy, and now that block is heading to retirement.

Furthermore, the number of programs to train power engineers has diminished. Only five university power engineering programs in the country have more than four full-time faculty members. Washington State University is one of them, with seven. And many of the existing programs do not have the resources to incorporate into the curriculum the rapid advances in technologies, both in clean energy and in the smart electric power grid, says Anjan Bose, professor of electric power engineering at WSU.

Then there is the issue of training in new technologies like the smart grid—an electric power system that uses computer-based remotes and automation to anticipate and meet power needs. Efforts to develop the smart grid started back in the 1990s, says Bose. When he came to WSU in 1993, Bose and other faculty members were focusing on using computers to manage power distribution. “We didn’t call it the smart grid back then, but that’s what it was,’’ he says.

In 2010, the Department of Energy gave $2.5 million to a group of WSU researchers to develop a program for training engineers in clean energy and the smart grid. Bose has also been working with Avista to develop a live test bed for the smart grid in Pullman. Avista received two significant grants through federal stimulus dollars, including a $40 million grant to update the electric power grid in the Spokane area and support for a smart grid regional demonstration project. Last spring, smart meters replaced the typical electric meters at 13,000 homes and businesses in Pullman and Albion. Instead of requiring monthly readings, the meters have wireless internet transmitters that collect and send data to Avista about the times and amounts of energy consumed at each residence.

The smart grid is going to be the most significant change for the power industry in the next 50 years, says Kopczynski. “None of us that have been here for 30 years are prepared to lead that.’’

Washington State scientists and engineers are also focused on increasing the reliability and security of the power grid and have investigated the causes of major blackouts, such as the 2003 power outage that affected 55 million people in northeast United States and Canada.

Fortunately, both industry and individuals are striving to update and bolster the workforce. Recently, Puget Sound Energy provided a $150,000 grant to WSU to train students in renewable energy, and Avista is funding a $10,500 annual scholarship program for students in power engineering as well as fostering a strong faculty at WSU by supporting the Power Professorship Development Fund.

We need to strengthen the research and the training our universities can offer, says Kopczynski. “The only way we’re going to keep our electric facilities working well is if we have well-trained engineers.”