Mo-Shing Chen, a world-renowned power engineering educator and researcher, died on 1 May at the age of 91.
The IEEE Fellow was a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington for more than 40 years. He founded the university’s Energy Systems Research Center in 1968 and served as its director until he retired in 2003.
Chen created UTA’s first Ph.D. program in electrical engineering in 1969, and it quickly became one of the nation’s largest and top-rated graduate programs in power systems engineering.
Chen’s research included the modeling of electrical loads, the effect of voltage control in energy savings, real-time testing to improve power system efficiency, computer representation of cogeneration systems, reducing efficiency losses in transmission lines, and voltage stability.
Through his work, he solved complex problems engineers were facing with power networks, from small, rural electric cooperatives to ones that serve large metropolitan areas including New York City’s Consolidated Edison Co.
He taught his students not only how to solve such problems but also how to identify and understand what caused the troubles.
Mentoring the next generation of power engineers
Born in the village of Wuxing in China, Chen and his family moved to Taiwan in 1949 when he was a teenager. After Chen earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1954 from National Taiwan University in Taipei, he joined the Taiwan Power Co. as a power engineer in Wulai. There he became fascinated by difficult, real-world problems of power systems, such as frequent blackouts and sudden spikes of electric loads.
Deciding he wanted to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering, Chen moved to the United States to do so at the University of Texas at Austin under the mentorship of Edith Clarke, an EE professor there. She had invented an early graphing calculator and worked on the design and construction of hydroelectric power systems including the Hoover Dam, located on the Nevada-Arizona border.
Clarke and Chen had lively discussions about their work, and they had mutual respect for one another. He studied under Clarke until she retired in 1957.
Chen earned his master’s degree in 1958 and his Ph.D. in 1962.
He joined UTA—then known as Arlington State College—in 1962 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering.
As a professor, Chen observed that electrical engineering programs at universities around the country were not meeting the needs of industry, so he founded UTA’s Power Systems Research Center. It was later renamed the Energy Systems Research Center.
He gained global recognition in the power industry through his intensive, two-week continuing-education course, Modeling and Analysis of Modern Power Systems, which he began teaching in 1967. Attendees learned how to design, operate, and stabilize systems. The course became the power industry’s hub for continuing education, attended by 1,500 participants from academia and industry. The attendees came from more than 750 universities and companies worldwide. Chen also traveled to more than 40 companies and universities to teach the course.
He mentored UTA’s first Ph.D. graduate, Howard Daniels, who became an IEEE life member and vice president of a multinational power company based in Switzerland. Chen went on to mentor more than 300 graduate students.
Chen this year was awarded one of UTA’s first College of Engineering Legacy Awards. The honor is designed to recognize a faculty member’s career-long performance and dedication to the university.
In 1968 he founded the Transmission and Substation Design and Operation Symposium. The event, still held today, serves as a forum for utility companies, engineers, contractors, and consultants to present and discuss trends and challenges.
He also created a distinguished-lecturer series at UTA and invited students, faculty, and industry engineers to campus to listen to speeches by power systems engineers including IEEE Fellow Charles Concordia and IEEE Life Fellow W.F. Tinney.
Chen said he was always cognizant that the primary purpose of a university was education, so before making any decision, he asked himself, “How will my students benefit?”
By the mid-1970s, the U.S. National Science Foundation consistently ranked UTA as one of the top power engineering programs in the country.
Chen said he believed any faculty member could teach top students, who generally need little help. A professor’s real service to society, he said, was turning average students into top-quality graduates who could compete with anyone.
Part of that process was recruiting, motivating, and mentoring students. Chen insisted that his graduate students have an office near his so he could be readily available for discussions.
Chen’s contagious enthusiasm and thorough understanding of power systems— along with a knack for communicating difficult concepts clearly, simply, and humorously—made him a popular professor. In 1976 he received the first Edison Electric Institute Power Engineering Educator Award. More than 50 of Chen’s students and colleagues endorsed him for the honor.
Chen founded the university’s first international visiting-scholars program in 1968. Through the program, more than 50 power systems researchers have spent a year at UTA, teaching and conducting research. Participants have come from China, Israel, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Macedonia, Spain, and Russia.
Power engineering research for ConEd
Chen was the principal investigator for more than 40 research projects at the Energy Systems Research Center. Many of them were supported by Consolidated Edison (ConEd) of New York and the Electric Power Research Institute, in Washington, D.C.
One of his first research projects involved creating a computer representation of an operational power system with Daniels. Running a computer was expensive in the late 1960s, and Chen and Daniels’ research helped decrease data acquisition costs from between US $10,000 and $20,000 to only 1 cent.
With that project, Chen quickly demonstrated his research value to the power industry.
In the first project Chen led for ConEd, he and his team created a computer representation of New York City’s underground electric power system. It was one of Chen’s favorite projects, he said, and he enjoyed looking back at his experiences with it.
“Before this study, computers were used to represent balanced systems, not unbalanced underground systems,” he once told me. “New York City is fundamentally a distribution system, not a transmission system. ConEd had paid $2 million to a different, very famous university to do this study, but it couldn’t deliver the results after two years. We bid $250,000 and delivered the results in nine months.”
ConEd’s CEO at the time said, “We asked for a Ford, and you delivered a Cadillac.” It was the beginning of a nearly 30-year relationship between Chen and the utility company.
Chen and his colleagues designed and built a small supervisory control and data acquisition system in the mid-1980s for a group of power companies in Texas. Such systems gather and analyze real-time data from power systems to monitor and control their equipment. Chen’s invention proved valuable when he and his team were modeling electric loads for analyzing power system stability, resulting in the reduction of blackouts.
He published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers, most of them in IEEE Transactions on Power Systems.
His awards included the 1984 IEEE Centennial Medal, an honorary professorship by eight universities in China and Taiwan, and an honorary EE doctorate in 1997 from the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, in Mexico.