Article by Djuna Gulliver
In 1996, Kirk Morgan, P.E., then an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in Civil Engineering, won the Student Award Foundation Grant. While Kirk says the award funded text books for graduate school, he suggests a more valuable benefit was the recognition as a young engineer just starting out. Since then, Kirk has earned a Master’s from UC-Berkley, and now designs wind turbine foundations as a Senior Structural Engineer with Barr Engineering Co. in Minneapolis, MN.
When asked what projects he is most proud of, Kirk points to the accomplishments of teams, with which he has been privileged to work, at various firms. Together, they have designed a freeway in Thailand, a mid-rise office park in Bellevue, WA, a 660 kW self-erecting wind turbine tower, and a 1.5 MW power bolted plate turbine tower. Kirk also reviewed hundreds of wind turbine foundation designs in North America on behalf of banks. When he worked for a certification body in Germany, he helped certify certain foundation designs for use anywhere in the world. Kirk now works with Barr Engineering, one of the top US design firms in wind turbine foundations. Barr has designed over 40% of the wind turbine foundations currently in service nationwide.
Kirk took some time to discuss his career as a Structural Engineer, and reminisce about his time as a student in Pittsburgh.
Question: What do you enjoy most about your current job?
I most enjoy using my particular skills to make us better at delivering technical value and cost savings to our clients. This looks like optimization on most days, but when I think back to an influential talk I attended (in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon) it really comes down to asking the right questions and knowing that I can make a difference in search of the BEST answers.
Question: What do you think wind turbines can bring to our national energy portfolio?
Wind energy is a proven contributor to our energy portfolio that is only getting better. Industry leaders are calling for the phase-out of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) because it is increasingly recognized that wind is no longer a boutique industry and it can actually compete on cost of energy (COE) with traditional fuels. Real benefits and real jobs exist in a space where we used to just tilt at the giants. Don Quixote would be amazed.
Question: What are the benefits and/or detriments of utilizing wind power?
Any energy project has impacts both good and bad as they all use land of some variety, they are all visible, they all require construction, and they all interface with life on this planet in one form or another. The renewable nature of the free fuel for wind power is simply too hard to ignore. In simple terms the trick is to build the right projects in the right places.
Question: What is one of the most important and/or difficult things about building a wind turbine foundation?
I like to tell people that wind turbine foundations are the closest we have come yet to designing an airplane out of reinforced concrete. The fatigue loads used for tower and foundation design are the result of computer simulations designed to represent 20 years of continuous operation and myriad operational and environmental faults. These are, by definition, dynamic in nature. As a civil engineer trained in structures that stand still, the loads from wind turbines are truly unnerving.
Question: What advice would you give other young engineers?
If you take the time to choose a life's work purpose for yourself and make primary decisions with your career that are consistent with that choice, then you can deal with a lot of challenges that you may not accept otherwise. Of course this becomes more difficult as you get older and the commitments outside work accumulate. But if you have made good choices all along, you will not need a mid-life crisis to change your career. You can use your crisis for something else instead.
The other advice I would give is something my mother impressed upon me at an early age and that is to maintain options. Keep your network. Develop and expand your skills when you can. Do good work and leave people with a good memory of you.
Question: What is your best memory of being a civil engineering student?
My best memory of being a civil engineering student is when Dr. Steve Fenves taught me about strain energy density at Carnegie Mellon for our steel bridge competition. What Dr. Fenves showed me (in a couple lines of math) has shaped how I look at just about every structural deformation question. I look at - where does the energy go? If you cannot answer this question, you do not know how your structure really works.
Question: What do you miss about Pittsburgh?
I miss Pamela's pancakes, I miss golf on hot afternoons at Schenley Park, I miss catching my breath after a jog looking out at the sunset from Panther Hollow Bridge. If you have not done these things yet (gosh I hope Pamela's is still open!) then you should.
In 1988 members of the ASCE Pittsburgh Section founded the Student Award Foundation of the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineering (SAF). Since that time the SAF has given awards to emerging leaders who call the Pittsburgh Section home. In 2007 American Bridge Company provided a donation of $75,000, and since, the primary award is the American Bridge Leadership Award. Thanks to the donation by American Bridge, the SAF will annually awards the American Bridge Leadership Award in at least the amount of $5,000. In addition to the American Bridge Leadership Award, SAF awards Achievement Awards of lesser amounts to qualified candidates. To donate to the Student Award Foundation, read more information here. To apply for a Student Foundation Grant, read more information here.
*Editor's Note: Mr. Morgan did not participate in the specific projects represented in the images above.