Bringing the Innovation Craze to Energy

Daniel Jang

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Category: Skills for Innovation.
View all entries here.

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As a college student at a research university, I find myself surrounded by young entrepreneurs. I need only stroll down the hallway of my dormitory to find a couple of friends coding away into the night, trying to build the next big thing for the web. I find myself asking how can we replicate this level of passionate innovation within the energy sector?

A two-pronged approach holds promise:

1) socially incentivize the energy sector as a post-grad destination, and

2) consolidate the working spheres of engineers, technicians, and scientists.

 

The energy sector, to the average 20-year-old of Generation Z, conveys images of decadent coal factories; it is mistaken as an industry of the past. This connotation needs to change.

 

It is crucial for industry representatives to show that the energy field is in a huge state of renewal.

We are, for the first time, incorporating renewables into the smart grid at unprecedented scales. We are, for the first time, using massive computational resources to model the variability of power generation and ensure reliability. And perhaps we will, for the first time, take distributed generation to developing countries and electrify the homes of billions of people in remote villages. Many students of our generation want to see a strong social element in the workplace; we want to see that we can have a positive impact in both the local and global environment.

 

With regards to making a broader approach to prepare students with adequate STEM skills for the energy sector of tomorrow, it could be prudent to borrow some ideas from the national German apprenticeship system. This program consists of a mix of vocational school and on-the-job training at private companies. A student who is interested in, for example, building energy usage could be better off at an apprenticeship than at a traditional four-year university, where training for important skills such as LEED certification may be unavailable. So in addition to encouraging students to take interest in STEM from an academic standpoint, the energy industry could benefit from expanding apprenticeships to students interested in developing practical, technical skills.

 

Attracting new talent is one way to stimulate innovation in the energy sector, but more immediately, the existing workforce could be optimized to also provide for innovation. In manufacturing-heavy industries, it is not unusual to see compartmentalized divisions for design and production. In fact, sometimes the production is actually offshored. Experts are warning against this divorce of design from manufacturing. It is said that one reason behind the failure of numerous battery start-ups in the late 2000s is because the complexities of manufacturing had been underestimated. Good science had led to new storage chemistries, but those innovations failed to translate to commercially viable solutions because the downstream manufacturing was too costly or impractical. It is critical, then, for the energy industry to consolidate the working spheres of scientists and manufacturing technicians, and strive to encourage constant communication and collaboration between the two roles to ultimately stimulate ongoing innovation in the energy sector for tomorrow.

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