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Montana Technological University Opens New Engineering Labs

The STEM-focused university this week unveiled the newly completed SEL Power-Systems Labs, funded by a $1.5 million donation from Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, to train electrical engineering students.

Montana Tech
Montana Technological University cuts the ribbon March 24, 2021 on a new educational facility for electrical engineers in this photo from the university's Facebook page.
Montana Technological University
(TNS) — A team from Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories turned out to cut the ribbon on the newly completed SEL Power-Systems Labs at Montana Technological University on Wednesday.

The labs, funded by a $1.5 million cash donation from SEL, will give Tech's electrical engineering students a place to hone their skills in power-system protection, energy conversion, and power plant systems.

The timing couldn't be better, said Dr. Dan Trudnowski, dean of the School of Mines and Engineering at Tech.

Working with high voltage systems is at once expensive and dangerous if not done right, so very few labs of the caliber Tech has exist in universities across the country, he said, adding that the industry is booming with job opportunity.

"This will enable us to have a state-of-the-art lab where they're safe. But yet, they can really get into the nuts and bolts details of high voltage power systems, which is a huge need in our society. With renewable energy coming in, one of the biggest challenges is how do you connect it to the grid safely and reliably. And so we'll be able to really get into that in a lot of detail. It really sets our program up to be one of the best in the nation," Trudnowski said.

Of course, donating all that money for labs comes with a catch — SEL loves hiring Tech students.

"Our graduates, they're mostly Montana kids, and they work hard, man. And SEL loves that work ethic," Trudnowski said.

Over the seven years Tech's offered a power-system protection class in conjunction with SEL, the company has hired over 20 Tech students to continue their work professionally, said Brian Smyth, university relations coordinator for SEL.

Smyth is from Butte, a Tech grad himself, and helped form the working partnership that led to the course being offered and the labs being built. He also teaches the power-system protection course.

The close collaboration with Tech has let the school develop a niche within electrical engineering — producing students with the expertise to become power-protection professionals.

Their work has no little importance in society.

"In a nutshell, what SEL does is we build the equipment that sets your power off. So when your lights go out, it's typically our equipment that's doing that," Smyth said.

"So anytime you've seen your lights flick, they go on off, and you have to run around your house and reset all your clocks — that's probably our equipment that saw something and then it cleared the power," Smyth added.

It's not always pretty.

"A lot of times it's animals that climb up on a power pole, and they then get electrocuted. And it's just like in a movie where you've seen somebody getting electrocuted — they can't let go," he said. "Once that power is removed, they can kind of release and let go of whatever they're being electrocuted by."

The company owns about 90 percent of the market share in the United States dedicated to that service, Smyth said, adding that the new labs provide the perfect place for students to learn the technology that makes it work.

The need for expertise will exist as long as we need to keep the grid and its users safe, and is expanding in new directions.

"Cybersecurity is a big topic these days, and especially in the power grid. When people can hack into our power system and shut power off, that's really bad," Smyth said, adding that cybersecurity may be incorporated into future classes at Tech.

The prospect of renewable energy expansion will also rely heavily on electrical engineers, Trudnowski said.

"There's a lot of challenges. One, you can't control the energy source. In a steam plant, I open a valve to get more steam, I put more coal into the furnace, but a wind turbine, God controls the source. Because in an electric power grid, you have to balance all the energy," he said.

Besides taming nature, electrical engineers are also learning new ways to connect the DC voltage typical of solar systems to the AC grid, Trudnowski said.

The challenges of the future create the need for new skills now. With new labs at their disposal, Tech's students are better positioned to lead the way.

The labs won't only increase the quality of electrical engineering education at Tech, but also the quantity.

Currently 15 students per year graduate with electrical engineering degrees. Trudnowski expects the labs to boost that number above 20, with room to expand in the future.

The new labs are on the third floor of Tech's Natural Resource Research Center.

Don't forget what Smyth said about animals and power poles. It might be wise to knock before entering.

(c)2021 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.