Power Systems Engineering: A Career on the Grid

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Electrical Engineering

Power systems have a long history in the U.S. that dates back to 1882, when Thomas Edison founded the first electric utility owned by investors. According to the Smithsonian Institution, what is considered the first large-scale distribution of electrical power occurred more than a decade later when water pouring over Niagara Falls was diverted to turbines attached to two 5,000-horsepower generators. Since then, the way that electricity is created and distributed has gone through dramatic iterations, but the value of the commodity has only increased.

Today, engineers are often tasked with the responsibility of designing, managing and improving these critical systems. As an electrical engineer, a deep understanding of power systems and the ways that they provide energy to communities across the nation through a master’s degree will help you to succeed in your field after graduation.

What is an electric power system?

An electric power system is a network of pieces that combine to process and distribute electrical power. While this can take many forms, the most common are the large networks – sometimes known as “the grid” – that supply communities with electricity. These networks typically contain a source – usually a generator – which creates power that is passed through a transmission system and is delivered to individual homes and businesses through some form of distribution system.

The term “electric power system” is not to be confused with “power electronics,” the latter of which is a more broad – though closely related – concept that describes the study of converting electrical power from one form to another.

Engineering and the steady state

These electric systems typically create power through synchronous generators. The stability of these generators is intertwined with their ability to return to what is known as the steady state – or the system’s equilibrium. In electronics, the system must have the ability to return to this equilibrium state without losing synchronism.

The balance of power systems is typically categorized by one of three classifications of stability, the differences of which are particularly significant in scientific research:

  • Dynamic stability looks at a system’s ability to return to its original state after experiencing continual small disturbances.
  • Transient stability involves the study of a power system after it has experienced a major disturbance.
  • Steady state stability is the ability of a system to return to a stable state after a small disturbance has occurred.

It is also important to note that steady state systems’ outputs operate independently of time.

Security assessment in electrical engineering

As in much of engineering, the practical application is critical when you work in the field. This typically brings engineers back to the power grids that convert and distribute electricity to the millions of people who live in the U.S.. When such a large amount of energy is being created and distributed through systems, a major challenge you will face is the threat of brownouts or blackouts. A blackout is a complete outage of power in a particular area, while a brownout is a partial reduction in the voltage or capacity of the system, which is only temporary. Brownouts are more common in electrical power systems, but blackouts are the more problematic of the two, as they can lead to significant disruptions.

When you work in the field of electrical engineering, one answer to this threat is the use of security constrained optimal power flow, or SCOPF. This method offers an additional set of parameters that limit some of the conditions at which the system can operate it. Common constraints that you may use include voltage magnitude, voltage stability and angle stability of the power supply. As an electrical engineer, part of your role in the workplace may include assessing these security constraints to determine the most efficient conditions to be used in industrial applications to ensure that electrical power is delivered in the most cost-efficient manner. That may include running hundreds of simulations, looking at worst-case scenarios to guarantee the safety and efficiency of the system.

An alternative to SCOPF is optimal power flow, or OPF. As opposed to SCOPF, which provides additional parameters to ensure security, OPF systems simply offer the best flow for a particular configuration, without taking extra constraints into consideration. It is consequently a simpler system that does not involve making as many assumptions or checking a large number of parameters. However, the system may not be as secure as one that uses SCOPF. As an engineer, you may find yourself in situations in the workplace where you are tasked with determining which option is better for a particular scenario, with respect to the financial concerns of your employer.

The market analysis of power systems

The operation of large-scale power systems requires more than simply technical knowledge and an understanding of electrical engineering. Though you may not expect to use economics as an engineer, market analysis is important for determining the financial component of running these systems. In large-scale power distribution in particular, companies need to know not only how much power to release, but how much they should charge consumers.

If you are considering a career in power systems, electrical engineering knowledge is clearly a must. However, having a grasp of the economic factors that go into play through market analysis is also beneficial. Consequently, many higher level courses will cover the topic when you pursue a master’s degree. Depending on your position after graduation, you may find that working as an electrical engineer requires a deeper knowledge of business and economics than you had anticipated.

UCR Power Systems

Engineering careers in power systems

Whether you are currently pursuing a higher degree or considering enrolling in a master’s program, your job prospects upon completing your education are likely a high concern. Positions in electrical engineering in general currently have a promising outlook. According to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, the average salary for one of these positions is $95,230 per year, and the number of positions is not expected to decline through 2020. However, because the bureau predicts little growth in the overall number of jobs between 2014 and 2024, having the experience and knowledge provided by a master’s degree can help set you apart in what could prove to be a competitive field.

While a background in power systems will aid you in most any position as an electrical engineer, there are also a number of more specialized roles that are available to you when you have this specific expertise. Some of these positions include titles such as:

  • Electrical power systems engineer
  • Electrical engineer infrastructure and power distribution
  • Power supply engineer
  • Line design engineer
  • Power transmission and distribution engineer
  • AC-DC power systems engineer

When pursuing a career in power systems as an engineer, you will most likely end up working for an academic institution’s lab or at a plant owned by a power company. Though you may sometimes be called on to work evenings or night shifts, positions in this field typically operate during normal weekday hours.
Your responsibilities when working in power systems will likely include different facets of designing, creating, testing and operating these systems to ensure maximum operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Depending on your role, you may also work on the growing application of integrating renewable energy strategies and technologies into these systems. As the U.S. government makes a push toward green energy, innovation is needed to find new ways to power the nation’s systems without relying on fossil fuels and other limited resources.

If you are currently pursuing your education or working as an electrical engineer and considering shifting to a more specialized field, the time is right to consider a career in power engineering. According to a 2011 survey by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, the electrical utility workforce is rapidly aging. In fact, the report predicted more than 60 percent of workers could retire or leave by 2020. As the workforce filling these jobs decreases, more positions in power engineering will open up, providing a number of new opportunities for recent graduates to fill.

In addition to providing a career that is both challenging and rewarding, working in power systems has financial incentives for engineers. PayScale reported that positions specifically in power systems engineering in the U.S. generally come with an annual salary between $60,722 and $103,832.

Your electrical engineering degree

Ready to take the next step in a successful engineering career? Consider enrolling in a Master of Engineering degree through the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering. The Electrical Engineering M.S. Program will prepare you for a successful career in the field through coursework and lectures that will expand your knowledge of both the academic and practical applications of electronic systems. Whether you are interested specifically in power engineering or a more general electrical engineering career, a master’s from UCR will help set you apart from the competition when you look for a job after graduation.

As an electrical engineering student, you will be able to focus on preparing yourself for a career in power systems by completing more general studies and then taking a course specifically dedicated to the study of power systems steady state and market analysis. With the tools and knowledge provided by this course of study, you will be equipped to pursue a successful career once you complete your degree. And by enrolling in the online master’s degree program through UCR, you receive the resources and credibility of a major university combined with the flexibility of pursuing your education on your own schedule. Whether you want to work part- or full-time while completing your degree or are living in an area without access to an academic institution, the online program can be tailored to fit your specific needs in an online master’s program.


Recommended Reading

The Future of Smart Grid Technologies

Career Spotlight: Power and Smart Grid Engineer

University of California, Riverside Electrical Engineering Program



Payscale, Power Systems Engineer 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Dictionary of Engineering

American History, Origin of Electrical Power