Green Engineering’s New Charge

on July 12, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Powering the green energy revolution will take more than technology and renewable energy sources – it will require a new generation of engineers with diverse skills and fresh thinking.

These skilled engineers are in high demand as the world’s energy needs rise. Global demand for electricity is estimated to surge 50% by 2030. Policymakers are mandating that that this need be met partially from green sources. In the US, 33 states plus the District of Columbia have ordered their utilities to produce a growing percentage of power from renewable sources within the next couple of decades. More states are expected to follow suit.

To grow the talent needed to fuel green energy’s future, institutions from universities to labor unions are focusing on “green-collar” job training. At GE, we’ve hired hundreds of engineers in the last few years, and we’ve found that, while traditional experience is important, a broad range of skills, from chemistry to software development are crucial. But we’ve also uncovered a few common threads among successful green engineers.

Manyphay Souvannarath is one of those successful engineers here at GE. As a senior systems engineer for smart grid, she has learned first hand the qualities needed to excel in green engineering, and have opportunity for years to come.

Big-picture thinking

While engineering is a field of specialists, green engineers need to have a big-picture view across complex systems and understand industry issues. For Manyphay, one of the most important qualities for a green engineer – especially those who work with smart grid technology – is the ability to think at a solutions-oriented level.

One of the biggest challenges facing green energy is getting disparate systems and the resulting data they produce to communicate with each other. People who can help break this barrier will find no shortage of opportunity.

Beyond the technology, understanding the complex energy space is essential.

“Energy is not just about the power plants, transmission lines and distributions lines,” Manyphay says. “Energy is a system that is affected by government, standards committees, consumer behavior and even weather.”

As the industry comes to terms with the interconnectedness of new energy sources, opportunities will emerge for green engineers.

Multifaceted interests and training

A big-picture view often is formed though diverse experience and cross-disciplinary training. For example, prior to joining GE, Manyphay worked with a utility company in Michigan. She has chemistry and computer science degrees, along with an MBA. While multiple degrees aren’t essential, training across disciplines creates myriad green engineering opportunities, including systems architecture, field installation and software and standards development.

Passion and commitment

To create the energy infrastructure of tomorrow, engineers will need more than technical abilities – they need passion and commitment.

“We sometimes take for granted the work and process that goes into the flip of a switch,” Manyphay says. “I spent a lot of hot summer days in a coal-burning power facility, learning about the different systems of a plant and how power is generated. The experience not only improved my technological knowledge, but also instilled in me a strong value to never take power for granted. This, along with my sustainability values, fuels my passion to see us as humans be better stewards with the resources we have.”

For engineers who have this passion, there are a growing number of opportunities to gain experience. More than $500 million in stimulus money for education is targeted for green job training, and more than 300 community colleges are now aligned with the Sustainable Education and Economic Development (SEED) Center, which helps community colleges develop green job training programs.

GE has an internal engineering advancement program to make experienced engineers think and work on a more system-oriented level. We are always looking for talented individuals who have a mix of mechanical, electrical and software engineering expertise, and will work with them to develop the skills they need to drive innovation.

Green energy is one of the most fascinating challenges and strongest areas for opportunity of our times. To propel its future, green engineers will lead the charge.

Mike Carlson is general manager, Smart Grid Solutions for GE’s Digital Energy business, part of GE Energy.

Photo Caption: A Moroccan engineer cycles past a solar panel at that country’s largest solar generating station.