Energy Engineering

Necessary for a Clean Energy Workforce

The engineering of energy-related systems is expected to be a growth area.  In particular, alternative energy-based enterprises will be on the rise.   K-12 education should emphasize elements of clean energy, embedded in the standard curricula such as physics and chemistry.  But the greatest imperative is to prepare a cadre of engineering graduates uniquely suited to clean energy enterprises, in the non- and for-profit sector.

The new discipline of Energy Engineering (En E) should be offered as a second major or a minor attached to a hard-core discipline.  Pooling resources of universities in proximity will most effectively accomplish this.  Faculty on sabbatical from DOE National Laboratories would be very effective, as also student summer internships at the Laboratories designed to supplement the curricula.

Clean Energy Workforce

The national imperatives of energy security and sustainable energy development will drive the creation of new businesses.  These are expected to largely center on alternative energies.  We expect these to fall in two buckets:  replacement of oil for transportation and less carbon intensive electricity production.  An interesting area of intersection of these two themes is an intelligent electricity grid.  The engineering work force required to execute all of these would profit from college training that recognizes the special needs.  An Energy Engineering curriculum could well be the solution.

K-12 Education: First we should examine the preparation of students before they get to college.  In large measure, this would create student interest in the field while also providing an understanding of the issues underlying clean energy.  Industry affiliated organizations today attempt to address this topic, for example, the K -12 programming of the American Geological Society tries to infuse elements of earth science into the science curricula as early as elementary school.  In general, the most fruitful avenue will be to do the same in the alternative energy space.  Science curricula are obvious targets, but not to be ignored are the social science subjects and even the simple expedient of energy-related problems in mathematics courses.

Energy Engineering:  While the directions mentioned above may well be needed to prepare the high school student, there is anecdotal evidence already to support the belief that an En E program will be popular.  The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted a poll with their Biomedical Engineering students, which elicited strong interest.  This was augmented by another poll from a wider body of students.  Duke University engineering faculty also concluded desirability among students for such a program.  And this year, North Carolina State University launched a program in Renewable Electric Energy Systems (REES), offering a concentration in this area for students in the EE program.  As a result, the Research Triangle Energy Consortium (RTEC), a non-profit in energy founded by the above named universities and RTI International, is coordinating an examination of an area wide En E program.  This would involve these proximal institutions sharing resources, thereby minimizing the need for faculty gaps to be filled, and enriching the program with the unique attributes of each institution.  We endeavor here to describe what such a discipline might entail.  Analogs are expected to be very instructive.

There is precedent for engineering programs that target specific industries in the energy sector.  Nuclear Engineering and Petroleum Engineering are probably the most recognizable.  We will use the latter for discussion because it is somewhat more widespread.  It serves a mature industry with a fairly well-defined set of required training (nuclear is similar).  Thus it is able to sustain a specialist discipline, although industry health has a serious impact.  This will not be the case for the En E program serving the alternative energy industry.

The industries served could have elements of the following: solar electricity, wind electricity, biofuels with biochemical and thermochemical variants, smart grid and related enablers, batteries and other storage, clean coal, carbon sequestration, electric cars and related endeavors such as fuel cells, and hydro.  This breadth alone militates against a unique En E four-year program.  Even Pet E is subject to the whims of the industrial cycle.  In a recent trade publication, an influential department chair put out a plea for hiring their graduates.  One of the problems is that the hottest play in petroleum today is shale gas.  They are hiring, but the volume required is in the hard-core disciplines of ME, EE and Chem E, not Pet E.  In fact, far more of these comprise the petroleum work force in general.  Alternative energy programs should be guided by this.

The take away from the foregoing is that En E should be a minor or a second major attached to a core such as Mechanical Engineering (ME).  Second majors are usually standalone programs as well.  This will likely not be the case here at first (over time, a new discipline could well form, as happened in Pet E).  Unlike the liberal arts, where true second majors are feasible, engineering programs are constrained by ABET.  This is an accreditation body, which is highly prescriptive, leaving little room for curricular innovation, although the organization is being increasingly responsive to the critique.  So, as a practical matter, finishing in four years would force a relatively light second major requirement.  A sanctioned ninth semester is a possibility.  Eventually, masters programs with specialization will likely be a logical outcome.  In general, En E will be easier to achieve at the graduate level.  But to be relevant to industry, an undergraduate program of some sort is a must.

Outlined below is an RTEC view of how the Triangle institutions could combine forces.  None of this has been endorsed by any of the three universities, although all support the general idea in principle.

Program Considerations

  • Each of the three institutions Duke, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill, will need to arrive at curricular guidelines.  Programs not bound by ABET will be, for example, Chemistry, Physics and any other non-engineering discipline.  In these cases, the energy concentration would likely be labeled Energy Science.  The hard-core engineering disciplines such as ME, Chem E and EE would easily add En E, but will need to reconcile academic loading.  If ABET were not a factor, or amenable to change, certain upper division courses could be replaced with En E courses.  Also, the practicum course could easily combine the core and En E disciplines and should probably be required to do so.
  • A menu of courses would be available at each institution.  These would be in logical groupings, mostly as a guide.  Such groupings would be linked to specific target industries.  There likely would be no requirement to stay within groupings.  A student may choose to broad brush.  Advising would ensure that this is done prudently.
  • An important element of the requirement should be attention to the humanities and social science components.  In most programs these number at least five courses.  These should be made prescriptive, but with choice within the genre.  Consideration should be given to minimize or waive certain requirements, such as foreign language.  These will be tough calls with controversy virtually guaranteed.   Again, this will be institution specific.
  • Engineering curricula are packed as it is.  Taking courses at one of the other campuses could prove logistically daunting.  Means to ameliorate must be sought.  They could include a certain number of courses using distance learning, possibly utilizing the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) facilities.  Distance learning is continuing to become an important part of education.  It has the virtue not only of easing the collaboration between universities, but also, it allows for easier addition to skill sets of existing engineers.
  • The DOE could play a role in two ways.  They may fund pilot programs to develop curricula and be participatory in the same.  The clean energy field is still in a very formative stage.  Considerable thought will need to be given to the definition of the sub disciplines.  Additionally, the National Laboratories could provide faculty on sabbatical, at least in the short term, to host universities participating in an En E program.  Distance learning could play a role here as well.  Finally, the Laboratories could be host to student summer interns as part of a structured instructional program.


The enterprise of Energy will definitely need a cadre of persons trained in core engineering disciplines that allow for the construction and operation of plants, processes and delivery infrastructure.  As an example,the petroleum industry, and the service sector in particular, Petroleum Engineers comprise a small portion of the engineering work force.  The alternative energy sector can be expected to follow suit.  Take for example the business of biofuels.  The workhorse discipline here will be some sort of process engineering, likely most easily labeled Chem E.  However, important advances will need to be made in fields such as catalysis, which is the province of chemistry or material science.  One would expect the En E curricula to cover broad swaths.  But each student will have deep grounding in a single core discipline.  This will allow for participating in a variety of clean energy fields.  This is important because today we cannot predict the winners in the race for alternatives.  As a datum, Pet E graduates are virtually only employable in the petroleum sector.  As a result, the Pet E graduate population has gone through boom and bust cycles (see Horne).

On the other hand though, when employed, they are the highest paid cadre of engineers.  We can reasonably expect engineers with an En E concentration to command similarly high salaries.  Further, science graduates with Energy Science concentration credentials will likely command higher salaries than traditional graduates.  This will inevitably attract the best and brightest, and will bode well for clean energy enterprises.