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Sustainable Energy Systems Pathway

Sustainable Energy Systems Pathway

We live in a world where lowering the impact of energy consumption on the environment will be vital to a sustainable future. However, increasingly greater demands are being placed on energy systems we rely on everyday. Power plants, transmission lines, communication links, control systems and a wide range of embedded computing devices together form complex networks that have important local, regional, national and global impacts.

The Sustainable Energy Systems pathway is an opportunity to learn how to control, connect and deliver electricity reliably to the places it’s needed. Students will take into account changing variables such as strengthening existing energy infrastructure while integrating large amounts of electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and tidal power. Because of the scope, scale and complexity of sustainable energy systems, studying this area is an opportunity to learn how to model, analyze and optimize not only power systems but also other complex cyber-physical systems.

This pathway is a good fit for students who are interested in:

  • A career focused on developing and operating power and energy systems
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Learning how to analyze and optimize large, complex systems
  • A career focused on public service
  • Cutting-edge startups


Does a student need a graduate degree specializing in this area to be marketable to industry?

No. Students completing their BSECE degree are well-prepared to pursue a career in sustainable energy. For those interested in graduate school, some recent graduates have pursued a master’s or doctoral degree at the UW, UC Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

How can a knowledge of sustainable energy systems be applied in the real world?

Knowledge about sustainable energy systems is widely applicable in the real world. Examples of early-career assignments include:

  • Designing distribution network reinforcements to accommodate a forecast increase in demand for electricity
  • Designing automation systems to improve the energy efficiency of buildings
  • Analyzing the impact of increased residential solar penetration on the voltage profile of distribution feeders
  • Developing software for the real-time operation, control and protection of transmission and distribution networks
  • Scheduling energy transactions in the Western Energy Imbalance Market
  • Designing and implementing electrical energy protection, communication and control schemes

Do sustainable energy systems touch on global impact, equity and/or quality of life?

Yes. A large fraction of the world’s population does not yet have access to electricity. Rural electrification in the developing world spurs economic growth and has the potential to improve quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. For a student who wants their career to have meaning, studying sustainable energy systems could be an excellent choice. Students in this pathway will become the next generation of engineers working toward mitigating the effects of climate change and building a clean energy future for all.

Areas of Impact

Computing Data and Digital Technologies

Designing and reliably operating a sustainable power system requires a considerable amount of computer modeling and simulation, as well as a fundamental understanding of a wide range of embedded systems connected to the control center through a dedicated, high-speed communication network.

Environmental Sustainability and Energy

Power and energy systems research at UW ECE includes interdisciplinary work at all energy scales, ranging from nanowatts to gigawatts. Our faculty are active in smart grid design, integration of renewable energy sources, grid security, energy economics, and solar and electromagnetic energy harvesting. UW ECE faculty are leaders in the Clean Energy Institute and work frequently with local utilities and grid systems operators.

Infrastructure, Transportation, and Society

The size and complexity of the infrastructure required to deliver electrical energy to homes and businesses is enormous and its importance will only grow as our nation and world migrates towards 100% renewable energy. 

Related Career Paths

Students graduating with a focus in sustainable energy systems will be prepared to pursue careers in many different types of organizations, for example:

  • Public and private electric utilities such as Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light, BPA
  • Renewable energy developers such as Iberdrola, NextEra Energy, EDF Renewable
  • Equipment manufacturers such as Hitachi, Siemens, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories
  • Independent system operators such as ERCOT, California ISO, PJM
  • Consulting companies such as DNV, Power Engineers, Black & Veatch
  • Software developers such as GE Digital, Nexant
  • Building automation and services company such as McKinstry, Stantec
  • Startup companies working on the development of new renewable energy technologies or systems for controlling the grid
  • National labs and other research and development organizations such as PNNL, NREL, Sandia, EPRI, Breakthrough Energy

On-the-job tasks for graduates with a focus in Sustainable Energy Systems include:

  • Designing the connection of a wind or solar farm to the grid.
  • Determining how much power can be reliably transmitted from the Pacific Northwest to California.
  • Trading electrical energy on the Western Imbalance Market.

Sustainable Energy Systems Courses

When planning for courses, review projected course offerings here and be sure to check all course prerequisites (course titles below link to the catalog course description, which includes prerequisite information). 

These courses are suggested for those following the Sustainable Energy Systems pathway but are not required to complete the BSECE degree program:

EE 351 — Energy Systems

What’s behind the light switch? In this class, we discuss how electrical energy is generated from renewable and conventional sources, and how it is delivered to homes and businesses. We will also extend the techniques learned in EE215 to the analysis of single-phase and three-phase AC circuits.

EE 454 — Power System Analysis and Operation

How does one ensure voltages and power flows are operating properly in a network made up of thousands of nodes and branches? In this class, we focus on how to analyze large power systems and how to operate such systems at the lowest cost possible while still ensuring that the lights stay on.

EE 451 — Wind Energy (Renewable Energy: Technology and Integration)

What happens to the electrical grid when a large number of people install solar panels? In this course, we take a deeper dive into the technologies of renewable energy generation and storage. We also consider issues that the integration of these distributed energy resources create in distribution networks and how these issues can be mitigated.


EE 497 (winter quarter) and EE 498 (spring quarter) — Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone (ENGINE)

The Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone program (ENGINE) is the culmination of a student’s electrical and computer engineering education at UW ECE. The program provides a unique opportunity for students to develop skills in collaborative systems engineering, project management, and most importantly, working in teams on real-world problems from industry-sponsored projects. The program is overseen by UW ECE faculty and students are guided by practicing engineers. The course culminates in a showcase of student projects, which is attended by industry sponsors and held at the end of spring quarter every year.

Crossing Paths

Students studying Sustainable Energy Systems should also consider the following customizable pathways:

Enriching Your Path

The following courses are also recommended for those following the Sustainable Energy Systems pathway: