By STEVEN NALLEY
Several students in Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum’s audience Wednesday were too young to remember a time before the Internet.
Keenum said it would not be unreasonable to predict that some of those students might build their careers in fields that don’t even exist today, comparing his youth when the Internet did not exist when he was their age. He said this capacity for change gives him hope that today’s youth will meet the challenge of supplying energy for tomorrow’s growing population.
“As I look at you, you are the future,” Keenum said. “You’re the ones who are going to solve those problems in the future. You’ve got to be prepared to adapt and be leaders in these ever-changing fields of technology.”
MSU’s Colvard Student Union hosted “Powering Mississippi in the 21st Century” Wednesday, with the aim of encouraging students to pursue careers in energy research and technology, and explaining the industry’s most recent developments.
Hundreds of students from the MSU campus, Starkville High School and the Mississippi School for Math and Science attended the panel, which featured Gov. Phil Bryant and several regional luminaries in the energy field. Bryant said Mississippi has the nation’s most successful nuclear power plant in Port Gibson, and where energy jobs have declined 4 percent nationwide, they have increased 3 percent in the state.
“Today, we’re going to talk about a large array of energy jobs and possibilities and dynamics,” Bryant said. “Energy is something you never have fully figured out. Just when you think you’ve got something like hydrocarbons figured out, it changes. We cannot achieve our success in (taking advantage of) 21st century energy opportunities without you. If we don’t have that workforce to say we can sustain (companies’) research and development ... then they’re going to go to another state. The energy of the future here in Mississippi depends on its workforce, and I hope you’ll be part of that.”
Sid Salter, recently named director of university relations at MSU, moderated a panel of four guests who each gave presentations on different aspects of the energy industry before taking questions from the audience. The panelists were Bob Balzar, TVA vice president of energy efficiency; Richard Mills, Tellus Operating Group CEO; Stephen Johnston, Itron Cellular Solutions president; and Haley Fisackerly, Entergy Mississippi president and CEO.
Balzar said TVA plans to invest $2 billion in energy efficiency, creating about 16,000 jobs, and not all of those jobs will be engineering jobs. The industry also needs customer relations managers, marketing and communications specialists, and mobile app developers, he said.
“There are good-paying jobs in the energy business in all those fields,” Balzar said. “The real place I see job growth is in what we call trade allies: heating and lighting contractors (and) smart grid installers. Those are where jobs are going to be very exciting.”
Mills said the petroleum industry will also play an important role in energy’s future. America is consuming oil faster than it can produce it by conventional means, but natural gas is a different story, and new technology is helping to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
“The U.S. is self-sufficient on natural gas and will soon be a net exporter in natural gas,” Mills said. “America’s role in the energy industry isn’t shrinking; it’s merely being redistributed.”
Johnston said his company started 12 years ago as SmartSynch, operating in a small house in Jackson before releasing its first product — the world’s first smart meter, a cellular computer device letting energy companies monitor home energy use. This May, he said, Itron bought SmartSynch for $100 million, showing the entrepreneurial potential of the energy industry.
“We became the largest venture capital-backed company in Mississippi at $86 million in 12 years,” Johnston said. “Our average wage rate was three times the state’s wage rate average, about $86,000 per year. When we got bought May 1, we went from a Mississippi company ... (to) a global company operating in 80 locations in 35 countries.”
Fisackerly said he will be participating in a conference Thursday in Jackson, where the state will roll out studies on health care, economic development and energy.
“The most consistent theme in all those studies (is that) the most important and precious asset we’re going to need is human capital,” Fisackerly said. “The actions you take right now can really set you on a path to where you’re going to be 10, 20 or 30 years from now. I hope when you walk out of here today, you’ll think about a career in the energy sector.”