An EPIC solution: Q&A with UNC Charlotte’s EPIC Executive Director Michael Mazzola
This interview is brought to you in partnership with UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center — also known as EPIC.
EPIC prides itself on preparing students and the future workforce for any situation that could impact the energy sector and electric grid. Formed through private and public funding in response to the need to supply well-educated and highly trained engineers qualified to meet the demands of the energy industry and to provide sustainable support for applied research, EPIC produces a technical workforce and advancements in technology for the global energy industry while supporting the Carolinas’ multi-state economic and energy security. Executive Director Michael Mazzola discussed how EPIC and its affiliated partners are working together to train the next generation of energy professionals to deliver solutions for the industry in a brief interview.
No one can predict when emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can hit and how they will impact the energy sector. What steps have you taken to prepare students and workers for events like this? Are you seeing any current threats to the operations of the electric grid?
To begin with, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is committed to the health and safety of everyone in our university community of faculty, staff, and students. And EPIC is participating in all of the measures that the university system in North Carolina has set as policy. Thankfully, I know of no one sick with a virus at EPIC.
But the energy industry that EPIC serves is among the most critical in our community. Very few things can run for long without electricity whether we are at home or at work. The electric grid is planned and operated for as few disruptions as possible. There is a two-part responsibility for ensuring this reliability. First, there is government regulation. For reliable delivery of energy in general, the most important body is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. But from a day-to-day standpoint, a second industry-created organization develops, in partnership with the electric utilities, standards and procedures that everyone who runs the system should follow. This organization is called the North American Electric Reliability Corporation or just NERC.
Between NERC and the utilities themselves, there has been a massive effort to ensure that the people that run the electric grid stay healthy. This is a highly trained, NERC certified group of virtually irreplaceable engineers and control room operators. Some utilities are turning their back up control rooms into mini villages where, in some cases, the control room operators’ families have taken up residence. This is an awesome display of commitment to serve our community from the employees and managers in our electric utilities that every citizen should be grateful for.
Can you tell us about your partnership with SOS and its student training opportunities?
One initiative that we undertook with SOS, a company in our EPIC Affiliates Program, is a scholarship to help some of our engineering students graduate with an extra credential, namely, NERC certification to be an operator working in an electric utility control room. Traditionally, control room operators have not had an engineering degree. But a trend has begun in the industry to have at least some operators be engineers. This is a reflection of how complex the modern grid is becoming. EPIC is committed to helping educate engineers to be turn-key ready for employment in the energy industry. Our partnership with SOS, a major provider of courses and training leading to NERC control room operator certification, is a unique program among university engineering programs.
What does NERC Certification Training entail and why is it in high demand in today’s workforce?
Strictly speaking, you must hold NERC certification to work in a control room for a utility that is a member of NERC. And without certified operators making important and correct decisions about operating the electric grid every hour of every day, then a reliable, affordable electricity supply would not be possible. And, as I said earlier, the complexity of that grid is growing almost exponentially as many new energy sources, such as wind and solar, add new levels of variability to the operation of the grid. Fortunately, NERC has joined the utilities in taking extraordinary action during an unusual time to ensure that a trained workforce is on the job. This has included relaxing some technicalities associated with certification for the duration of the COVID 19 crisis that could have reduced the availability of these crucial employees .
How does it benefit the industry as a whole to have a well-rounded, highly trained workforce?
There are many reasons of course. For example, before the change in the economy due to the virus response, a trained and ready to work population was in my experience the number one challenge for most businesses, especially in technical fields. But during a disruptive event like a pandemic, we are reminded that we must keep our trained workforce at adequate levels to ensure the minimum staffing of critical facilities like power plants is never in doubt. EPIC’s role is primarily to recruit and support the education of students for a career as engineering professionals working in the energy industry. That is our founding mission, and one that is important before, during, and after unfavorable events, whether it be a pandemic or a hurricane.
Speaking of events that can impact our utilities, our region has recently seen a slew of storms impact our power grid, is EPIC involved in research involving grid resiliency?
Another aspect of EPIC’s mission is to support the energy industry with timely and practical applied research and development. EPIC has faculty and staff from many branches and specialties in engineering working on this research. Some of our research is as tangible as helping determine if a wooden utility pole is safe to climb using innovative new sensing devices.
But some of our research addresses the complex convergence between technology, economics, and social policy. For example, EPIC supported the development of the North Carolina Clean Energy Plan. A question spawned from that plan is the public value of preparing for the next hurricane by investing in electric grid modernization now. EPIC is the technical lead of a major study for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of Energy to find the right level of investment in grid modernization as a sort of insurance policy against economic loss from devastating weather events such as hurricanes. Our partnership includes the North Carolina Clean Technology Center at NC State University and the project is led by the North Carolina State Energy Officer, Ms. Sushma Masemore. The goal is to reduce future economic devastation of the type that all too many of our citizens have experienced from weather events, even before they had heard the word “pandemic.”
EPIC works to solve problems facing the energy industry now, in what ways are you preparing for the future needs of the industry?
One issue above all that motivates our young students to consider a career in energy is the fact that the energy sector is undergoing the greatest change since Tesla and Edison battled over AC versus DC electricity. How will we decarbonize the production of electricity to massively low levels by 2050 as is the goal of North Carolina? EPIC takes an “all of the above” strategy that begins by maintaining the huge head start that the Carolinas enjoy with our vast zero-emission nuclear energy capacity. For example, last year 51% of North Carolina’s electricity consumption came from carbon-free nuclear energy. EPIC is engaged in complementary research intended to address the remaining issue, which is how to integrate much more low- or zero-emission alternatives like renewable energy in time to meet the carbon reduction targets while still maintaining a reliable and affordable supply of electricity.
To learn more about EPIC, visit epic.uncc.edu.