By Jon Arnold, Zpryme Advisor and ETS Community Advocate
There was a lot to digest at last week’s ETS15 in Austin, and am glad I took notes. If you weren’t there, I hope you had a chance to follow the conversations on social media, and perhaps took advantage of the live video streaming and short form video interviews with many of the speakers. As the Community Advocate for ETS, along with being an Advisor to Zpryme Research, I want to make sure you continue to feel the great vibe from Austin into this week and beyond.
Several themes are worth reflecting on and I’m going to talk now about the one that resonated most for me. I did my MBA a long time ago, and the education environment is very different today for many reasons, but the U.S. energy sector is facing distinct challenges for both attracting and educating the next generation. That became very clear right from the outset at ETS15, and was a thread I followed throughout the event. While many shortcomings were raised, there is also a silver lining if you look in the right places. Let me connect those dots below, and hopefully you’ll reach the same conclusion as I have.
What students need to be learning now
Tuesday was the precon day, and the panels I saw addressed what’s happening now in both the K-12 segment and the university/college environment. Smart grid – and even the broader world of energy or electrical engineering – is facing a decline in terms attracting students into the related disciplines. Stepping back, this is part of a bigger challenge in the U.S. education system that falls under the umbrella of STEM learning. The U.S. has been steadily losing ground globally in these fields, and many initiatives are in play to reverse that trend.
These sessions were great, as we heard first hand from students about why and why not they choose to enter broader areas of study like engineering or science. One reason cited is that because energy is as ubiquitous as oxygen or water, they take it for granted and don’t think of it as an interesting field of study. Another is that schools aren’t teaching it in ways that are relevant to today’s youth – if at all. One student explained by saying rather than using dry, abstract examples to teach how energy works, provide context for everyday items such as smart phones. In short, the subjects that tomorrow’s smart grid leaders will need to master today, really aren’t being taught very broadly. Secondly, when they are, the old school teaching methods aren’t doing much to spark their interest to stick with the program.
This brings me to the next point, which is to recognize what forms of knowledge and expertise matter the most for tomorrow’s energy economy. The traditional disciplines of engineering and science are essential, but as we know, the grid – and all forms of energy – is increasingly connected to technology. That’s the reason I focus on smart grid as an analyst in addition to my core expertise in communications technology. The intersection of these worlds is getting tighter, and we saw several examples of that at ETS15.
How technology impacts what we learn about engineering
One example came from Badar Khan, the CEO of Direct Energy. His main message was that technology is a “big deal” now, and that providers like his company need to leverage it to remain competitive. Technology has enabled a two-way relationship with subscribers, and utilities must now communicate in ways that consumers understand. Consumers want to manage their energy consumption, but can’t relate to utility metrics like kwH. Badar explained how Direct Energy now expresses that information in the context of dollars spent/saved, and does so in real time. Consumers care about what they’re doing right now – in the moment – and when you can address that immediacy, you’ll get their attention. This is how utilities can add value and keep customers happy.
Coming back to education, the point is that tomorrow’s engineers must also understand that the needs of energy consumers – in homes or businesses – are part of the equation thanks to technology, and without their engagement, smart grid initiatives will stall. In other words, it’s not enough just to design more efficient forms of energy generation, distribution, storage, etc. The overall value chain that determines the success of an energy provider goes beyond this, right out to wherever the customer is consuming power.
Big data is a big deal for utilities
A second example came from Thomas Siebel, the famed founder of Siebel CRM Software, and now CEO of C3 Energy. This company develops cloud-based analytics software for smart grid applications, and is exactly what utilities need to manage the massive amounts of data now being generated by smart meters. With deep roots in the software world, he laid out the challenges facing utilities on this front, and if they don’t get a handle on this data flow, they’ll never evolve successfully from their 19th century roots.
Coming back to my main theme, today’s young engineering and science students must understand the broader context for how technology is powering knowledge and driving business value for utilities. It’s not enough to master the concepts and theories. Technology is accelerating the creation of data that every segment of the energy value chain relies on to make the smart grid truly smart.
This is not to devalue what STEM learning is trying to achieve; rather that the science of energy is not the whole story. The next generation will know their science, but the true energy leaders will know how to marry this with technologies like what I’ve been referencing herein. That’s the silver lining I see here, and we got some validation of that from Dr. Massoud Amin’s comments about how he’s seeing a strong uptake now from students following his teaching.
When you connect the dots in the right way, students will see the opportunity, and then energy won’t seem so boring. Adding the technology layer makes smart grid an exciting space, and together this is what will extend the vision to smart cities, smart homes, smart transportation, etc., and if that doesn’t capture the imagination of today’s STEM students, I don’t know what will.