When Washington’s governor came to Pullman along with Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers last year, they made two stops: one at WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center and the other at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory (SEL) to learn about smart electric power grid innovation.
Aligned from SEL’s earliest days, WSU and SEL have collaborated closely over the years, and their success has brought attention from local, national, and international policy and industry leaders. They have supported each other as they have grown in stature, developing state-of-the-art power grid technologies for the country and training next-generation power industry leaders.
“SEL began in Pullman because of WSU,” said Edmund O. Schweitzer III, SEL founder and president, who was attracted to WSU’s famed power engineering program to study for his Ph.D. “WSU has a recognized electrical engineering program that has educated so many students who have gone on to serve us in all kinds of disciplines, including electric power.”
SEL has provided years of support to WSU’s programs.
“We’ve enjoyed a long and close relationship through SEL’s support of labs, our research, and scholarship,” said Behrooz Shirazi, Huie-Rogers Chair Professor and Director of the School of EECS. “We look forward to continuing this valuable collaboration and supporting each other in future years.”
After completing his doctorate at WSU in 1977, Schweitzer came back as a faculty member to WSU. Based on the research that he conducted while a student at WSU, Schweitzer started his business in the basement of his Pullman home. In 1982, he left the university to devote his efforts full time to the company, which is headquartered in Pullman.
Schweitzer invented the first digital protective relay that went on to largely replace the electro-mechanical relays traditionally used in the power industry for monitoring and control of electric power systems. The digital methods he developed and commercialized help to prevent, locate, and limit power outages more quickly and provide detailed reports that help users improve the system. Nearly every utility in North America uses SEL products, which can also be found in industrial and commercial power applications, and Schweitzer’s work to develop computer-based protection and control technology has led to safer and more reliable generation, transmission, and distribution for the electric power grid.
SEL is one of the largest employers on the Palouse and contributes significantly to its economy. The company employs nearly 4,000 people and sells products in 148 countries.
Meanwhile, EECS has also seen dramatic growth in the past few years. Research expenditures in the school have more than doubled to $7.6 million in the past six years, with about $4 million of that in power engineering research. Enrollment in EECS has also doubled to more than 1000 undergraduates and nearly 200 graduate students.
EECS anticipated the growing interest in energy and strategically expanded the already strong power engineering program to 12 faculty members. That resulted in doubling the number of undergraduate and graduate students who go to work for the energy industry.
The relationship between WSU and SEL remains close.
In the past two years, SEL has hired more than 10 percent of EECS graduates—more than any other company. More than 200 WSU alumni work at SEL, and the company provides internship learning opportunities for many WSU students. Every year, the company also supports student senior design projects.
“So many of us at SEL enjoy working with WSU students on their design projects, serving on advisory boards, and teaching an occasional class,” said Schweitzer. “I love what WSU offers,” he added. “It has never lost its roots of a land-grant institution advancing science, agriculture, and technology.”
Schweitzer fondly remembers the support he received at WSU. In the past couple of years, he and his wife, Beatriz, and SEL have provided significant scholarship support in the name of former professors, Clifford Mosher and Al Flechsig, and a street entrance into SEL was named Mosher Drive. Mosher was Schweitzer’s WSU academic advisor and introduced him to protective relays and to the university. Schweitzer has said that SEL wouldn’t have been created without Mosher’s support.
SEL is also very generous with equipment donations, said Anjan Bose, Regents Professor in the School of EECS. A few years ago, for instance, the company provided students with an electric car for a senior design project and had them retrofit it as a solar-powered car. After the student project was completed, the company donated the car back to WSU for use in a renewable energy course.
“The whole idea of an undergraduate lab is to provide hands-on experience, and by having the latest and best equipment from SEL, we can teach them better,” he said.
The company also supports the work of WSU researchers and graduate students in power engineering in areas such as health monitoring of substations and critical infrastructure protection. SEL supports a graduate student fellowship, which the school uses to attract top graduate students.
“SEL and WSU have a great industry/university relationship,” said Schweitzer. “We are both very active in research and are doing things together. We have come up with new models of collaboration and research between university and industry which I believe will be copied by other institutions and companies.”
With WSU and SEL working together, both entities are stronger and have been able to build their reputation as worldwide leaders in power systems protection and as a top power engineering program in the country, said Bose.
“We have positioned Washington state as a leader both on the industry/business side as well as on the educational side, and we have strengthened energy infrastructure industries throughout the state,” he said.