Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Technician Career Opportunities in Energy

One of the hot topics in the news these days is JOBS. People are losing jobs because the demand for their services has been reduced. In some cases, people are losing jobs because the field they are in is becoming obsolete, or is changing so rapidly that their knowledge, skills and experience are obsolete. In other cases these people are working to deliver products and services that are not globally competitive - thus, sales are down and employers are having to create their products and services with less labor, or by out sourcing the work offshore to remain competitive and survive.

In most fields, technicians remain in high demand; but in certain cases we’ve seen that situation change overnight - and the casualties emerge. As technical educators, we would be well-advised to re-examine our curricula and look for ways to assure that our tech grads continue to have core knowledge and skills that will sustain them throughout a career of 40+ years.

One promising area to examine is how the technician’s work relates to energy - now and in the future. Energy is the other hot topic that is being discussed today. But the supply, availability and efficient consumption of energy is not a temporary issue. It is one that we will all have to deal with constantly for the next several generations.

So how should we organize our examination of energy related topics to identify elements that should be included in our curriculum? Here’s my suggestion.

There are four aspects of the energy issue that are being addressed. I recommend that we all examine the curriculum in the various areas of technical education, using these energy aspects as organizers to study their impact on our particular field, and project, with the help of employer advice, the changes in core knowledge and skills that will be necessary to sustain employability.

Energy Sources

  • Conventional: fossil fuels and hydroelectricity - How will these be used more effectively in the future? What changes will be made to improve the conversion efficiency and reduce harmful combustion emissions? Will these changes require new equipment, new control systems or different chemicals to control the combustion process?
  • Alternative energy sources: especially solar, wind and geothermal - At OP-TEC, we are looking at the use of optics and lasers to improve the efficiency of solar voltaics, like holographic planar windows on collectors, and the use of femtosecond lasers to treat silicon so that it can convert more infrared wavelengths into useful electric energy.

Energy Storage

  • Larger and more effective energy storage devices will be needed to temporally redistribute energy collected from solar electric and wind generators. Last week’s blog dealt with the critical need for new battery technologies, and the possible implications it may have on technician education.
  • Improvements in the storage and retrieval of geothermal energy are also likely.

Energy Availability (distribution)

New solar electric parks, wind farms and nuclear plants will likely be located in remote sites that are far away from populated areas where the generated energy will be used. This condition will require the design, construction and maintenance of massive new electrical transmission systems. What technologies will these new transmission systems require? Will they be overhead, or underground? Will new metering, relaying, switching and transformer equipment be used? Will there be a need for large AC-to-DC convertors?

Energy Consumption

The cheapest, fastest and easiest sources of energy are those that we save through energy conservation. This means getting by with less and doing more with less - sometimes it can also mean doing better with less. Thirty years ago, when our nation faced an energy crisis, we demonstrated our resilience and patriotic spirit by engaging in unprecedented acts of energy conservation. Most of the accomplishments of that era were due to attitudes, thermostats, insulation and caulking.

Today, we will need to adopt and increase all of those strategies; but we will also develop and utilize new technologies for energy conservation, going even beyond heat pumps and electric cars. Control systems will be redesigned, processes will be improved, better materials will be used and information technology will continue to improve communications and eliminate unnecessary travel time and costs.

This is a brief look at a very important issue for technical educators. I hope it will stimulate you to think about it - and act upon it. I would welcome your comments and extensions to this line of thinking. For the last few years, OP-TEC has developed and tested effective strategies for infusing related technologies to update existing curricula/courses.

And if you want to get serious and collaborate on these topics, please plan to meet with me and Mike Lesiecki at the HI-TEC Conference in Phoenix, July 19-22. We will be leading two interactive sessions on these topics. Click here for more information on HI-TEC 2009!


Conrad said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Andrew said...

It is interesting to note that all the energy sources mentioned (fossil fuels, solar, wind and geothermal) are directly or indirectly connected to the sun.