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Building a Hydropower Engineering Master’s Program at the University of Toronto

Hydropower engineering is a specialized and highly multidisciplinary field, but perhaps because of the long-established nature of hydropower as a technology, there are now few university programs dedicated specifically to it. Bryan Karney, a professor at the University of Toronto (U of T), Sharon Mandair, the program coordinator for waterpower at the U of T, and Paul Norris, the president of the Ontario Waterpower Association (OWA), are trying to change that. They are working to establish a full master’s program focusing on the many aspects of hydropower engineering. In this interview, they tell Hydro Leader about the need for such a program, their work to create it, and their visions for the future. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions. 

Sharon Mandair: I completed my PhD last September under the supervision of Bryan Karney and Hydro Québec’s Research Institute. I was studying water hammer in the context of load rejection at a large hydropower station. As I was wrapping up my PhD, Bryan was kicking around the idea of developing a master’s-level curriculum for hydropower. He asked me if I wanted to run with it after I was done with my PhD. I did, and the day after I defended my PhD, I presented the idea to the OWA and its membership, and it was met with a lot of support. 

Bryan Karney: I have been a professor at the U of T since 1987. I have been interested in water for as long as I can remember, and I was first interested in irrigation and other water supply systems. As a part of my graduate studies, I specialized in water hammer and transient-type events. Some of my first consulting jobs were in the hydro area. That area went pretty quiet for a while, but recently, there has been a renaissance in hydro as a result of the push toward renewable energy, the desire to make the electrical grid both more stable and more sustainable, and the recognition that hydropower is dispatchable. As a result, hydro has become a growing passion for me. The core of my work throughout the whole time has been engineering consulting, engineering education, and engineering of water and energy systems. 

Paul Norris: I am the president of the OWA. I’m a graduate of the U of T, and my background is in public policy. I came to the industry from government in the early 2000s. I have been really fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a bunch of passionate people in the industry. We represent the waterpower industry in the province of Ontario through advocacy, public outreach, and work with various communities and stakeholders. 

A breakdown of the ages of Ontario's waterpower facilities.

Hydro Leader: Would you please tell us about the size and importance of the U of T? 

Bryan Karney: The U of T is the largest university in Canada and is ranked as one of the top 20 universities in the world in a great many subject areas. More than 80,000 students are associated with its programs. The engineering program has a long tradition and is heavily involved in all aspects of teaching, research, and education in engineering. 

Hydro Leader: Mr. Norris, would you tell our readers about the OWA’s history and current activities? 

Paul Norris: The OWA was founded in 2001, after the Province of Ontario decided to commercialize our electricity sector, as many other jurisdictions, including in the United States, have done. After making that decision, the provincial government was faced with the question of how to regulate the industry in the absence of a dominant, vertically integrated utility. The industry decided to create the OWA to represent its common and collective interests. We were founded by eight generator members, and our membership now exceeds 140 entities, including generators; environmental, engineering, legal, and financial firms; product manufacturers and providers; municipalities; and indigenous communities. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about the proposed master’s program. 

Sharon Mandair: Right now, we are building what’s called a technical emphasis in waterpower, which is similar to a minor, for master’s of engineering students. As part

of that, we’re building two new courses. One of them is a comprehensive introduction to waterpower, and the second focuses on the special challenges associated with refurbishment. A student in the proposed full program would typically take 10 courses, 4 focused on waterpower and the remaining 6 on related topics of their choice. 

Bryan Karney: The U of T’s master’s in engineering program has two streams: the so-called master of applied science degree, which is focused on research and often leads to a PhD, and the master of engineering programs, which are more practically focused and are targeted toward people who are already working in the industry and would like to learn something new or enhance their education. 

Hydro Leader: What was the motivation behind the creation of the program? 

Bryan Karney: Canada has had a huge historical commitment to hydropower. Although this has grown gradually over time, hydropower is often viewed as solved, with an attitude of “been there, done that.” A lot of universities in the English-speaking part of Canada historically had a strong interest in hydropower, but they no longer have a strong emphasis on hydropower. There are graduate programs that focus on wind, solar, and other renewables, but hydropower is largely neglected. There is a need for a more dedicated form of preparation than what we’ve been providing. In Ontario, there was a change in the overall structure of the hydropower industry within the province. The graphic below illustrates the age of the current hydro fleet and it clearly shows both the historical commitment and the more recent relative neglect. 

Thus, we’ve had a gap, and we think we can move in and strategically fill that gap. That is important and exciting. We want to make a first-class, English-speaking hydro program available, initially in Ontario, and then maybe to expand its scope so that it can play a strategical role, nationally and even—to some extent, at least—worldwide. 

Sharon Mandair: At the U of T, there is a strong focus on sustainable energy, but as Bryan said, it is often focused on new and emerging technologies—solar, wind, and fuel cells, for example. But waterpower is distinctive because it is location specific, it requires a long-term investment, and it has a long history. Those themes don’t come out in typical sustainable energy courses. 

Paul Norris: The industry has several motivations in supporting this program. First, we want to help educate the next generation of professionals and the future leadership of this industry and to address the demographic shift that is already happening in our industry. Second, Ontario’s hydro assets are quite different from those in other jurisdictions. We have 225 operating facilities spread all across the province, ranging in size from 35 kilowatts to 1,200 megawatts. That diversity is linked to Sharon’s point about the site-specific and facility-specific nature of hydropower. Both of the hydro-specific courses we’re designing will address the diversity that defines our industry. 

Bryan Karney: I think one of the key things that defines the hydro industry is that it’s so multidisciplinary—any successful hydro project will involve hydrology, geology, civil engineering, turbine design, electrical engineering, and generators and controls. Hydropower is also a pretty highly regulated industry, and there are a lot of environmental and social concerns that have to be addressed on a regular basis, including those related to fish and land development. Compared to that, solar and wind are often more straightforward. I think that educating master’s students on all the different things that are applicable in the hydro business is really positive. It gives them a good base to understand all the aspects of the industry. 

Hydro Leader: How did the U of T and the OWA go about developing the concept for the master’s program? Did you solicit ideas from industry groups? 

Inside the University of Toronto’s Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Paul Norris: I’m really fortunate to have 140 members across a vast array of disciplines in the industry. We worked with the university to identify what the skeleton of the program would look like in terms of the expertise required. I did the outreach to our members. It came as no surprise to me that many stepped forward to volunteer, not just because they had expertise to offer, but because they thought it was the right thing to do. Pretty quickly, we put together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in fields including civil and electrical engineering, turbines, generators, the regulatory process, financial considerations, and electricity markets. All of them are volunteering their time to work of that, we’re building two new courses. One of them is a comprehensive introduction to waterpower, and the second focuses on the special challenges associated with refurbishment. A student in the proposed full program would typically take 10 courses, 4 focused on waterpower and the remaining 6 on related topics of their choice.

Bryan Karney: The U of T’s master’s in engineering program has two streams: the so-called master of applied science degree, which is focused on research and often leads to a PhD, and the master of engineering programs, which are more practically focused and are targeted toward people who are already working in the industry and would like to learn something new or enhance their education. 

Hydro Leader: What was the motivation behind the creation of the program? 

Bryan Karney: Canada has had a huge historical commitment to hydropower. Although this has grown gradually over time, hydropower is often viewed as solved, with an attitude of “been there, done that.” A lot of universities in the English-speaking part of Canada historically had a strong interest in hydropower, but they no longer have a strong emphasis on hydropower. There are graduate programs that focus on wind, solar, and other renewables, but hydropower is largely neglected. There is a need for a more dedicated form of preparation than what we’ve been providing. In Ontario, there was a change in the overall structure of the hydropower industry within the province. The graphic below illustrates the age of the current hydro fleet and it clearly shows both the historical commitment and the more recent relative neglect. 

Thus, we’ve had a gap, and we think we can move in and strategically fill that gap. That is important and exciting. We want to make a first-class, English-speaking hydro program available, initially in Ontario, and then maybe to expand its scope so that it can play a strategical role, nationally and even—to some extent, at least—worldwide. 

Sharon Mandair: At the U of T, there is a strong focus on sustainable energy, but as Bryan said, it is often focused on new and emerging technologies—solar, wind, and fuel cells, for example. But waterpower is distinctive because it is location specific, it requires a long-term investment, and it has a long history. Those themes don’t come out in typical sustainable energy courses. 

Paul Norris: The industry has several motivations in supporting this program. First, we want to help educate the next generation of professionals and the future leadership of this industry and to address the demographic shift that is already happening in our industry. Second, Ontario’s hydro assets are quite different from those in other jurisdictions. We have 225 operating facilities spread all across the province, ranging in size from 35 kilowatts to 1,200 megawatts. That diversity is linked to Sharon’s point about the site-specific and facility-specific nature of hydropower. Both of the hydro-specific courses we’re designing will address the diversity that defines our industry. 

Bryan Karney: I think one of the key things that defines the hydro industry is that it’s so multidisciplinary—any successful hydro project will involve hydrology, geology, civil engineering, turbine design, electrical engineering, and generators and controls. Hydropower is also a pretty highly regulated industry, and there are a lot of environmental and social concerns that have to be addressed on a regular basis, including those related to fish and land development. Compared to that, solar and wind are often more straightforward. I think that educating master’s students on all the different things that are applicable in the hydro business is really positive. It gives them a good base to understand all the aspects of the industry. 

Hydro Leader: How did the U of T and the OWA go about developing the concept for the master’s program? Did you solicit ideas from industry groups? 

Paul Norris: I’m really fortunate to have 140 members across a vast array of disciplines in the industry. We worked with the university to identify what the skeleton of the program would look like in terms of the expertise required. I did the outreach to our members. It came as no surprise to me that many stepped forward to volunteer, not just because they had expertise to offer, but because they thought it was the right thing to do. Pretty quickly, we put together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in fields including civil and electrical engineering, turbines, generators, the regulatory process, financial considerations, and electricity markets. All of them are volunteering their time to work

with the OWA and the U of T to develop this program. We have representatives from utilities, manufacturers, construction companies, and engineering firms. There are 12 lessons per course per semester, and several of the individual lectures are actually going to be put together by some of the team members based on their expertise. 

Hydro Leader: How did you find the funding for the new program? 

Sharon Mandair: Bryan has been generous in using his available funds to support my work and my efforts to create this program. We are also looking to find more funding through the university and through industry and government programs. One of the things that the university looks for when it is funding startup-type projects is connection to the industry, so we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get some funds. 

Bryan Karney: Putting this program together reminds me of an old community barn building, where a whole bunch of people see a need and get together to meet it. It has mostly occurred on a volunteer basis. Paul has done outreach through the OWA, and I’ve been interacting with academics and researchers for several decades in this area. I’ve been fortunate enough to have good students and reasonable funding. I can support the program for a bit as a sort of bootstrap operation. We’re hoping to get seed funding, mostly from the U of T, but perhaps from other sources. too, to build a foundation for the program. 

Hydro Leader: How will this program differ from other existing programs? 

Sharon Mandair: That question is a great opportunity to dig into what the two new courses will look like. Our introductory course to waterpower—what we’re informally calling Waterpower 101—will take an interdisciplinary frame. We’re trying to expose students to all the different systems that come together to make waterpower possible, including the civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering aspects; economics and financing; environmental and social license issues; and how waterpower fits in with the market structure. The challenge with an interdisciplinary frame is stitching the pieces together to make sure that a student comes away with an appreciation for each of the components and its role with respect to the whole. We’re also developing a course on refurbishment; I do not think there are any existing courses on this topic. Refurbishment is an interesting problem, because you need to understand the history of the technology, how facilities were initially designed and for what purpose, and how they can be adapted to a new dynamic role in the grid. It was announced the other day that Ontario Power Generation is going to spend $2.5 billion over the next 20 years just on repairs and upgrades to its fleet, which indicates how big the market for refurbishment is. We’re designing our refurbishment course to be as hands on as possible, and we’re planning on including a real-world project. Because of our partnership with the OWA, we have tremendous support and enthusiasm from folks from the industry, and we’re benefiting from their resources and their time as we build this unique course. 

Hydro Leader: What are the main goals of this program, and how do you propose measuring its success? 

Sharon Mandair: Its goal is to encourage lifelong learning, no matter where students are in their careers. I have in mind two demographics of students. The first would be those who have no experience in the industry: students who perhaps are not quite sure where they want to go or what they’re interested in. I want to foster a learning environment in which they can explore ideas, find out whether they’re interested in joining in the industry, decide where they might fit in, and make connections that would allow them to gain meaningful employment. The second group of students would be those who are coming from the industry with a bit of experience. I’m hoping that those students will be able to come to the U of T and find the tools that they need to add value to their companies. As for measuring the program’s success, I think it would really be as simple as following up with students about their experiences and asking them if they found what they were looking for and if the program helped them in their careers. 

Bryan Karney: One straightforward metric would be the number of people who are completing the emphasis each year. We want to grow for some time until we reach a steady state. We want the reputation of the program to grow. We want employers to come to us seeking our graduates, and we 

want engineers to come to us seeking this credential and this preparation. I’m hopeful that we will achieve all those goals and reach our program’s desired capacity within a few years. 

Hydro Leader: How will the OWA and its membership network support this program? 

Paul Norris: First, by contributing subject-matter expertise from our membership to the design and development of the program. Industry members have already actively engaged in helping design the two courses that Sharon talked about. Second, through marketing. Our annual Power of Water Canada conference is being held on May 25–27, and Sharon and others are going to present the program to the industry. As Sharon mentioned, this isn’t just a program for students entering academia, it’s also an opportunity for individuals in the industry to broaden their educational experience and expertise and use that to advance their careers. Third, we want to help graduates of this program find advanced employment within the industry through our membership network by communicating the value of the graduate program to companies across our membership. 

Hydro Leader: When will this program open to students? 

Sharon Mandair: The program begins this fall. Waterpower 101 will start in September, and the refurbishment course will begin in January 2022. Waterpower 101 is a prerequisite for the others, so hopefully students will take the two courses sequentially. 

Hydro Leader: What is your vision for the future of the program? 

Sharon Mandair: I think the program could grow in a couple of ways. One is to offer more courses within engineering. Perhaps we’ll develop electrical engineering courses that are a bit more appropriate for waterpower. Another one that I’d love to see within the environmental engineering umbrella is something that pulls together hydrology and ecology to provide a better understanding of the aquatic ecosystem. Another direction it could go is to offer an emphasis or something similar for other faculties, like the school of the environment or the faculty of law. 

Bryan Karney: One of the things I’d love to see, and I haven’t really even broached this with the committee yet, is to have a field school. I’d love to have a 2‑week program during which students tour hydro sites that are in the process of being commissioned or refurbished and get hands-on exposure. These sites are exciting to visit and can be inspirational. I’d love to have a program that’s good enough that people want to make their way to our doors to get the experience that it can give and to have the careers it fosters. I think that it could grow to include literally hundreds of students, not necessarily all in the official U of T program, but through a variety of extension courses and continuing education courses that are supplements to the academic program. 

Paul Norris: For me, I look at this as our Field of Dreams. If we build it, they will come. Right now, we are nose to the grindstone, working through Sharon’s leadership and Bryan’s support and the efforts of the various teams to build something successful for September 2021 and January 2022 that will be recognized as an outstanding contribution and set the path forward. But I think we all share a longer-term vision of attracting not only people from the engineering program, but people in the business program, people in the environmental program, and people in the industry. All of us have gotten excited about what this could be in the future, but we are really focused on what it needs to be within the next 6 months at this point. 

Bryan Karney: I think one of the appeals of the hydro business is that it really is a legacy business. There are more than 100 plants in Ontario that are more than 75 years old, and only 56 that are fewer than 25 years old. Many people are in the fourth, fifth, or sixth generation of their family to be involved in hydropower. There is a lot of work to be done, but huge potential for these projects and plants to help modernize and decarbonize the electrical systems. 

Hydro systems are each unique, specific to their location and context. That’s a really exciting aspect of hydro—it is not just putting up the same wind generators or solar farms over and over again; instead, each site and each refurbishment has its own challenges. That creates a tremendous number of creative opportunities. I hope this will attract creative people who are good at problem solving. We need technical and administrative and communication virtuosity. That’s a really exciting group to put together. 

 

Bryan Karney is a professor in the Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering at the University of Toronto. He can be contacted at bryan.karney@utoronto.ca. 

Sharon Mandair is the program coordinator for waterpower at the University of Toronto. She can be contacted at sharon.mandair@mail.utoronto.ca. 

Paul Norris is the president of the Ontario Waterpower Association. He can be contacted at pnorris@owa.ca.