Where are the next energy managers?

Peter Garforth says colleges need to educate students to meet industrial needs.

By Peter Garforth

Educating the next generation of energy experts is arguably one of the most important tasks for all types of educational institutions, from kindergarten to universities and community colleges. At a recent conference I attended, focusing on industrial energy management, the high ratio of late-career energy professionals to the younger players was clearly visible, a situation that doesn’t bode well for our energy future. This gave pause for thought as to whether our schools and colleges are missing an opportunity to introduce new blood to the exciting world of energy management.

The buzz around “green energy” and “sustainability” has encouraged many schools to jump on the bandwagon and offer new courses. Typically, these all too often focused on a limited range of technologies. It is not uncommon to find people who have enthusiastically taken a course on, for example, renewable energy technologies and then fail to find an opportunity to use their skills due to the narrowness of the programs.

At the same time, businesses, communities, and policy makers are finding it difficult to identify and hire the energy management professionals they are looking for. Their need is increasingly for professionals at many levels who understand energy as a complete, interlocking system from fuel source to final service. They need energy leaders who can evaluate the interplay of economics, legislation, environment, historical perceptions and practices, and energy technologies. Equally importantly, the ability to turn these evaluations into credible plans and manage their implementation is key.

Communities and companies are increasingly looking for breakthrough, sustained energy productivity. This comes from systematically managing the interplay between fuel and end-use efficiency, efficient and flexible distribution, and a mix of conventional clean and renewable sources. They are also looking for reassurance that energy solutions are the best they can be when viewed from a worldwide perspective. They should also be flexible and anticipate a wide range of changes in available technologies, costs, and legislation.

Energy systems around the world can almost be seen as a number of laboratories.

The demand for energy professions with this broader, multi-dimensional view of energy management is growing. Young people seeking suitable courses within this framework more often than not find them impossible to find. Those that are offered typically are relatively narrow and mostly technologically focused, or very broad and predominantly environmentally focused.

This is clearly presenting a challenge for colleges. Successful energy management curricula will include technical, business, social, environmental, and legal aspects in almost equal measures. They will also deal with the planning tools needed to create long-term outcomes in the face of short-term uncertainty. Most colleges and universities are structured around the traditional science, arts, and business disciplines and struggle to effectively create interdisciplinary courses. This is the first hurdle to overcome.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium.Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at peter@garforthint.com.

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Yet another challenge is the fact that the energy systems around the world can almost be seen as a number of laboratories that will ultimately create a vastly more efficient, clean, and flexible energy system than the one that has served us for the past 100 years. An institution teaching energy management must find creative ways to ensure its courses reflect the best learning from the very different approaches being pursued by areas such as Europe, China, India, and parts of Latin America. Ensuring that current best practices and understanding are incorporated in curriculum design is the next hurdle.

A hidden challenge can often come from the trustees and directors who ultimately have a huge influence over the courses colleges are able to offer. The polarized and fragmented nature of the energy and climate change debate in the United States is a topic frequently touched on in this column. Inevitably, this will affect the perceptions and opinion of board members, in turn challenging academic staff trying to assemble courses that take a more integrated view including global best practices.

Finally, U.S. and Canadian college campuses are rarely glowing examples of integrated energy solutions, frequently operating at energy densities two and three times their counterparts elsewhere in the world. As a result, it is barely credible to teach courses underlining the need for sound energy management on a campus that is a living example of the reverse. All too often, this challenge is met with a token windmill, recycling bins and a few solar panels.

Recently, I have been privileged to work with a couple of institutions, one Canadian and one in the United States, that have taken these various challenges head-on. In addition to developing breakthrough energy master plans for their own facilities, they are reaching out to stakeholders and global networks to develop courses that fill this important gap. They see this as a necessary step in ensuring their own competitiveness by meeting a clear, and largely unfulfilled, market need. Industry has a key role to play in helping institutions such as these understand the changing energy skills needed and in supporting their efforts in developing new courses.

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