Education and the modern utility

Posted on September 07, 2016

About a week ago we shared a chat with Mike Ahern, director at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), on the importance of education to adapt to the changes in this industry. Recently, we talk to a student at WPI to further drive home that point.

Read the first chat with Ahern here. 

Today's chat features Ben Payeur, an associate engineer with Eversource. (Eversource is New England's largest energy delivery company, service more than 3.6 million customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.) We asked Payeur about his courses, his motivation to further his education and how he sees the industry changing from the inside.

What made you enroll in WPI's graduate courses on grid complexity? 
Initially I enrolled because the program with WPI was the Master's Program that PSNH (now Eversource) sent their engineers to.  About 5-10 years before I was hired, PSNH had sent somewhere between 20 - 30 engineers through the program, so there was a good history between PSNH and WPI, and many of my coworkers had positive things to say about their experience.   

What motivated you to dive into the power industry for a career field? 
When I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I was very interested in the problems that were facing the energy industry, particularly our nation's aging energy infrastructure and the need to create more energy diversity through the use of different types of sources.  Our nation's electrical grid is the nexus where all of the different challenges in the energy industry meet, and at this point in time it is the facilitator for almost all of the energy solutions that exist today.  The ability to be involved in a wide range of projects was what attracted me to work for a utility. 

What is the top item you've learned so far? 
I did my undergraduate work at the University of New Hampshire, where I majored in electrical engineering.  Electrical Engineering is a very wide umbrella with many different specialties, and UNH focuses heavily on electronics and signal processing; there were no power courses at all.  The best information that I've learned at WPI has been the bread and butter theory of the power industry.  Topics such as three phase power, transformer modeling, the per unit system, and symmetrical components are all things that I've learned that I didn't cover in undergrad.  These have allowed me to gain a real understanding of the work that I do every day, which has been extremely valuable as a young engineer.  

How do you see the industry changing and evolving? 
This is my favorite topic in the industry.  The biggest challenge I see at the present time is how to integrate the newer, smaller distributed generation sources into the grid in a way that is beneficial for everybody.  Historically, the grid was designed to have large generating stations in central locations, with long transmission lines that carried the power to local distribution systems, which then delivered power to the end user.  The distribution system was always a one - way street when it came to electrical current (the end user was typically not delivering power back into the distribution grid).  Now this is no longer the case, and it raises many technical questions that are being ironed out right at this moment. 

Given a few more years (or decades!) the challenges will probably continue.  For example, say there is a neighborhood that has installed enough local generation to stay running even though the utility is having a problem on their system, should the neighborhood be allowed to stay online in an 'islanded' configuration?   

On the economic side of things: what is the new business model for the utility?  As distributed energy resources continue to grow, will they cut deep enough into the utility's revenue that the current business model isn't sustainable?  If they do, then how do we as a society make sure that people who can't afford to install distributed energy resources maintain their access to a reliable source of electricity?  Should the utility be allowed to offer services like the installation of PV and compete with companies like Solar City? 

What's been your favorite moment in your WPI classes? 
Where I work, we use a modeling software that allows us to quickly solve many of the problems that utility engineers in the past had to do by hand.  For my first 3 years in my job, I understood some aspects of what it was doing, but not all of them.  My favorite moment came this past year when I was working on a model and I realized that, if I had to, I would be able to solve the problem completely by hand.  At the time I was in WPI's 'Power Systems Protection and Control' class, and the material that we were studying at the time was what finally hammered all of the theory home.  This was my favorite time in my classes because when a person studies electrical engineering, it is very easy to lose all connection as to why the material that is being studied is useful in the real world.  To have the direct mesh between the class and what I was doing on the job was extremely rewarding.

How do you see higher education helping to build a better power system overall? 
Education is essential to building a better power system.  The electric grid has so many technologies incorporated into it, ranging from the very old to the state-of-the-art, but they all operate on the same electrical theories and principles.  The workforce that designs the power grid needs to understand the theory to be able to innovate.  Ideally there will be close collaboration between the industry and educational institutions that will lead to breakthroughs both on the technical and economic side of things.


Want to tell us about your continuing education work, your university programs or even your utility training programs? We'd be delighted to chat with you about it. Sign up for the community and send me a note within the internal system or email me directly at 

Authored By:
With nearly two decades writing about the power business, Kathleen Wolf Davis has covered just about every industry topic imaginable from European DSOs to Brazil's smart meter markets. She combines a T&D special focus with her MFA in creative writing for a unique viewpoint in every article. Originally hailing from the wilds of Kansas, she has three too many college degrees, has helmed two industry conferences (one in Europe) and

Other Posts by: Kathleen Wolf Davis

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