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Career options for Power Engineering graduates — Part I: Stay In the Field

Power Engineering, also known as Power Systems Engineering, is one of the earliest subfields in Electrical Engineering. It studies the theories and engineering practices of electric power generation, transmission, and distribution. In recent years, the rapid development in the energy sector, such as renewables, smart-grid, and all the innovative energy and financial products associated, has injected new vitality into this long-standing field and broadened the options for job seekers. This article summarizes the career options and potential career paths for graduates with a degree in Power Engineering.

First, congratulations on getting your degree. You have three broad paths: Stay in the Field, Pivot, or Pursue Advanced Education. Each has several sub-options.

Let’s start with the Stay in the Field option. If you want to stay in the power industry, your choices can be one of the following:

  • Independent Systems Operators (ISOs)

An ISO is an organization formed at the recommendation of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). It coordinates, controls, and monitors the reliability and energy market operations of bulk power systems under its jurisdiction, usually within a single US state, but sometimes encompassing multiple states, in which case it is also referred to as a Regional Transmission Organization, or RTO. Most of the ISOs are also the Reliability Coordinator of their jurisdiction. Currently, there are seven ISOs in the United States and two in Canada. You can visit the ISO/RTO Council for a complete list.

Typically, an ISO hires engineers with a power systems background in its operations, planning, energy markets, and technology divisions. The operations division focuses on the real-time reliability of the power grid, while the planning division emphasizes resource adequacy in the longer term. Both operations and planning work are highly engineering-oriented, mainly power flow and stability studies. The energy market division has several sub-functional areas. Their main responsibilities are to validate the market’s solution, including price and power flow, and develop business and engineering requirements for new market features. Lastly, the technology division interacts with software vendors and is mainly responsible for network modeling, application development, and testing.

A bachelor’s degree with a good understanding of power systems basics is normally required to get hired. A master’s degree will increase your chance of getting hired by teams with engineering-economic analysis or technology development-focused tasks. A Ph.D. is normally unnecessary but will not hurt if you already have one.

  • Electric Utilities

Generation, Transmission, and Distribution are the three most important areas in the electricity supply chain. An electric utility company engages in at least one of the three. Traditional utilities are vertically integrated, owning the entire supply chain. However, the level of vertical integration has reduced today because of the supply side deregulation, which allows generators to bid in an energy market — one of the major functions of an ISO — to serve load more economically.

The transmission side of a utility focuses on voltage levels greater than 69 kV. The jobs are similar to those of an ISO's operations and planning teams. They communicate frequently and usually use similar tools and study methodologies. Hence, it is not uncommon to see people switch jobs from an ISO to utilities within its jurisdiction or vice versa. Unlike its transmission counterpart, the distribution side of a utility handles 69 kV and all the way down to 115 V, the voltage level connecting to our homes. At the distribution level, the operations team is responsible for the distribution system’s reliability while planning projects the load by looking at indicators such as population growth and the area’s development plans to ensure the distribution system’s adequacy. In addition, the substation and protection groups design the substation’s layout, grounding, and protection systems. They also need power systems engineers.

A bachelor’s degree with a good understanding of power systems basics is normally sufficient to get you started at a utility. A higher degree will be appreciated but is not necessary. If you plan to work for a group that involves planning or design work, a Professional Engineer certificate is highly encouraged and sometimes required to get promoted to a senior role.

  • Vendors

Vendors here refer to companies that develop and sell software packages or services related to power systems to utilities or ISOs. In other words, utilities and ISOs are the vendor’s clients. Common vendors in energy markets and energy management systems include Siemens, ABB, and GE, with many more focusing on other areas in this industry.

A vendor’s engineering jobs are primarily development-focused, which can heavily involve coding and testing. Hence, this type of role is sometimes referred to as a Power Systems Developer. The ideal candidates should have a power systems background and be proficient in coding and software development. Over time, a developer has the potential to grow into a project manager (PM) role. The PM serves as a liaison between clients and developers. A good PM should bridge the developers and clients by translating clients’ business requests into engineering language easily consumable by developers and articulating challenges during development back to the clients in less technical words. Recently, vendors tend to encourage the sales team to have power systems backgrounds as they believe that it can effectively improve communication efficiency and build trust with potential clients.

  • Energy Trading

There are two types of companies that offer energy trading jobs: the trading group of a utility (or a generator owner) and a financial trading shop. The main difference between the two is that financial trading shops, unlike their utility counterparts, do not own physical assets in the grid. The low correlation between energy prices and that of other financial products makes energy trading attractive for many hedge funds to diversify their investment portfolio. They are financial-driven groups focusing on arbitraging profits from price volatilities in the energy markets. While also making profits, the trading group in a utility is usually more concerned about resource scheduling and risk hedging.

To work for an energy trading company, you need to have a solid background in engineering economics analysis and understand how power markets operate. A good grasp of the power systems knowledge is a plus if you want to work for a company that is “fundamental” driven. Many financial trading shops prefer people with at least a master’s degree or a bachelor’s from a research university with a top-ranked power program. The career path usually starts with an analyst role, potentially growing into a trading role. Notice that having a power systems degree is not necessary for a trading job. Therefore, you will likely compete with graduates from other majors, such as math and economics.

  • Consulting Companies

A consulting firm provides professional services and offers expert advice to another company for a fee. The consulting companies referred to in this section are companies that conduct power systems studies and analyses for their utilities or ISO clients. Companies that perform strategic or management consulting services for energy businesses are not included.

Utilities or ISOs sometimes outsource their studies to consulting companies to offload their own resources or to utilize the expertise and endorsement of those companies. The study requests include and are not limited to transmission planning, generation interconnections, and feasibility analysis. Due to the nature of the job, candidates are expected to be familiar with popular power flow simulation tools and have excellent presenting and writing skills, as the main deliverables are usually in the format of reports or PPTs. Preferences are usually given to those who have previous ISO or utility experiences. Because studies are tailored to a client’s needs, which usually require some level of customization to the off-the-shelf tools, it is not uncommon for software vendors to have their own consulting branches.

The job requirements of these companies are similar to that of the operations and planning teams in an ISO or a utility, except that as a consulting engineer, you are also expected at some point to perform sales and business development activities.

  • Labs/Research Institutes

Labs and research institutes are organizations that focus on research and building prototypes for innovative ideas. Depending on where you work, the title can be Engineer, Researcher, or Scientist, despite the similar job duties. As a junior member, you typically work in a team on a (research) project for which a senior member is a primary investigator or PI. To grow and be successful in your role, you will need to write high-quality research proposals and get funding from various sources, including the government or companies in the industry. Some labs also do consultancy work for industry companies to resolve their operations challenges or implement a pilot project to prove a concept. The deliverables are usually reports, papers, and software tools.

You may think a Ph.D. is required to join a lab or a research institute. It is (technically) not. However, you should at least have a master’s degree, and it is a plus if you have previous industry connections or working experience.

  • Academia

Suppose you have a Ph.D. and want to devote yourself to research and higher education, this is an ideal option for you. Universities offer tenure-track positions in power systems and energy-related fields. You will start as a tenure track assistant professor. After that, you will have about seven years to prove yourself and earn the tenureship. Key metrics include the fundings you bring in, the number of high-quality research papers published, the number of Ph.D. and Master students you supervised (and graduated), and the teaching quality (based on students’ feedback). Once you become tenured, you will be promoted to associate professor and earn from the university you work for an indefinite academic appointment that can only be terminated for cause or under extraordinary circumstances. The risk is that you will be let go if you don’t make it within seven (sometimes can be relaxed to eight) years.

To qualify for this option, you should at least hold a Ph.D. from a reputable research school. In recent years, due to the intense competition, doing a post-doc in a top-ranked program is recommended before applying for a tenure-track position if your Ph.D. is not from one of those shining names. Although it is not an official rule, your initial academic appointment school is generally comparable to or lower ranked than where you got your Ph.D. or finished your post-doc.

  • Conclusions

This article summarizes the career options for power system graduates who want to stay in the field. While there are no good or bad options in general, I recommend you start with a place where you can learn about the industry and the system. The earlier you get a big picture of the industry, the easier it will be for you to grow and advance in your career. It would also help you decide where to pivot later if you need to. The career options for pivot will be discussed in Part II of this article.

This article is also published on LinkedIn.

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Hui Z

Hui Z

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I talk about Power Systems, Electricity Market, and Energy Transition. Founder of The Megawatts—an energy-focused publication: https://medium.com/the-megawatts