Peter Sauer – Professor – Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – University of Illinois Grainger Chair in Electrical Engineering
Primary Research Area: Power and Energy Systems
“In today’s world, young engineers are inspired by benefiting society and the planet with green technology. There really is a purpose to a career as an engineer.”
It used to be that anyone who wanted to do something exciting in engineering was looking to work for NASA. Today, young engineers are interested in green technology, helping reduce our dependence on foreign oil with electric cars, renewable energy and sustainability. It’s not just about making a new cell phone or a new TV anymore. In today’s world, they’re inspired by how they can benefit society and the planet. There really is a purpose to a career as an engineer.
I picked the electric power area because I knew that it would never go away. Everyone on the planet needs electricity. The only thing more important to our livelihood is water.
The other great thing about the profession is that you can get a job in any city, anywhere in the world, and with any type of company, not just utilities. Companies you wouldn’t normally associate with electric power are looking for engineers.
For instance, Frito Lay: they need their manufacturing plants to be more power-efficient because energy costs are a big part of their overhead. We’re the ones who know how to do that. Or Google: they have huge server farms that use an incredible amount of electricity. They’re always looking for power people to help make that part of their operation more energy-efficient. If you want job security, this is it. The manufacturing of TV sets may move to Korea but you can’t move the entire power grid overseas!
In engineering, you have options as to how you want to spend your time. You can wear jeans and work as a field engineer solving problems and troubleshooting things that fail. Or you can wear a tie and sit at a computer and invent new ways of doing things. And I love that you get a chance to think big and think small.
I was asked to solve a problem at a very large array for deep space telescopes in New Mexico. The power service there is so bad they had two back-up generators but they were tripping off whenever the second one came online. So I went out there to try to solve this big problem. In order to check the data for a simulation, I took the distribution panel covers off, and looked at the current sensors for the voltage regulator load compensation controls that are supposed to ensure sharing of reactive power. One of the current sensor loops was installed upside down, causing huge circulating current when operated in parallel. You don’t need a PhD to fix that, but a power engineer solves problems no matter what they are.
Students today think of things in a new way. They’re willing to try something that is far out, and are constantly generating new thoughts and ideas.
That’s why I love to mentor young engineers. I take them to see and talk to power engineers and electrical engineers working in the field. I’ll go out of my way to get students internships by acting as a liaison between them and various companies. I’ve developed those relationships to create opportunities for my students. It’s so rewarding when five years later, they tell me they got promoted because of something they learned in my class or something I did for them.