Energy Systems Engineering grad surges forward after facing economic, policy realities head-on

Choosing the direction for a capstone project was a no-brainer for Vince Sheehan ’18 ’19G, a recent graduate of Lehigh University’s Energy Systems Engineering (ESE) program. 

“I have been extremely interested in the concept of creating electricity by harnessing the power of the sun,” says Sheehan, who minored in energy systems engineering as an undergrad before pursuing a Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) degree in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. “From there, I decided to evaluate the future of solar energy in Pennsylvania’s industrial sector.”

The ESE professional master’s program is a 10-month, 30-credit track that’s highlighted by an extensive applied industrial project in the energy sector with a professional mentor assisting and advising each student.

In Sheehan’s case, that meant working with Loretta Ottinger, a senior project developer at RER Energy Group, a company headquartered in Reading, Pa., that helps businesses implement cost-effective renewable energy systems. 

Sheehan got a “floor-to-ceiling look at what our industry is all about and how our company operates within it,” says Ottinger. And that included the lesson that—unlike with textbook assignments—putting in the work doesn’t guarantee that a project will succeed. 

And put in the work Sheehan did, starting with training in photovoltaic design and HelioScope, a modeling software program used for this type of design.

“I learned the intricacies pertaining to the design of various types of ground-mounted and roof-mounted photovoltaic arrays,” he says, “and after that technical training, I began conducting significant research on the parameters that affect the profitability of an investment in a photovoltaic array in a given location. I also became familiar with the various political incentive programs used to artificially decrease the cost of electricity generated from photovoltaic arrays and how these programs differed in various states.”

At that point, Sheehan was ready to create a technical design and financial model for a photovoltaic array to be installed at a site in Pennsylvania for one of RER’s industrial clients, a quarry and rock processing plant.

“Unfortunately, the project was abandoned by the client,” Sheehan says. 

“It can be very disappointing when you work on a project and then it does not go through,” Ottinger says, “but what always impressed us most about Vince was his positive attitude, even through setbacks.”

Sheehan went on to create technical designs and financial models for a photovoltaic array to be installed at the respective sites for three new RER clients—plans which are still under review. 

Although he didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing his ideas come to fruition during his graduate studies, Sheehan says the real-world experience taught him a lot: “Economics and policy drive business decisions. While certain technologies may be extremely interesting to study, they won’t be implemented unless they are commodifiable and in line with current political endeavors. Furthermore, working with a partner in industry taught me that realistic projects can fail at any point due to scheduling or budget changes.”

It’s a perspective that’s prepared him for a successful career in the fast-moving energy industry.

“The ESE program’s director, Rudy Shankar, always told us, ‘Now is the best time to be in energy. You will leave this program at the forefront of a very innovative industry,’” Sheehan explains.

And that’s exactly where Sheehan is headed, now that he’s landed a job with MPR Associates, a specialty technical engineering consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

—John Gilpatrick is a freelance contributor for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

Advance your career in the energy sector
Lehigh’s 10-month professional master’s program in Energy Systems Engineering includes an applied industrial capstone project that provides students with hands-on experience and mentoring.
Vince Sheehan

Vincent Sheehan ’18 ’19G, now an engineer at MPR Associates, presents at the Energy Systems Engineering program’s capstone project symposium in 2019. Photos by Laura Ott '21

Vince Sheehan