With the world at large racing ahead to find innovative solutions to increase energy efficiency, including the push for smart grid technologies, will today’s workforce keep pace?
An estimated 30 to 50% of the electric power industry’s workforce is eligible for retirement in the next 3 to 5 years, and the need for training the next generation of workers has become critical. Smart grid deployment will result in about 25,000 workers looking to transition into new positions, emphasizing the need for programs that retrain existing workers to take advantage of new industry opportunities. (Center for Energy Workforce Development, 2009; KEMA, 2009; National Commission on Energy Policy, 2009.)
In response to this challenge, the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this year announced initial award selections for nearly $100 million for smart grid workforce training programs, which, according to the awardees, will train an estimated 30,000 Americans. The grant is part of the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
“Building and operating smart grid infrastructure will put tens of thousands of Americans to work,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in an April 2010 DOE press release. “Today’s investment will help ensure that we have the workforce in place to meet this need. This is a great opportunity for workers to upgrade their skills and earn more, or for laid off workers from other industries to start fresh in a new and growing field.”
The training is being designed to support electricians, line workers, technicians, system operators, power system engineers, cyber security specialists and transmission planners.
On behalf of the Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE), the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) applied for and received one of the 54 DOE grant awards, which will support smart grid workforce training and development for their energy industry effort. CAEL is a national non-profit organization that creates and manages learning strategies for working adults through partnerships with employers, higher education, the public sector and labor.
EPCE is a group of industry representatives and education providers that develops, sponsors and promotes standardized online learning programs, built by the industry for the industry, to meet the workforce needs of the energy industry.
“We were very pleased to be notified of the grant award by the DOE,” said Jo Winger de Rondon, vice president of CAEL. “With this funding we, with our energy partners and our founding education partner, are co-designing new online curriculum to help prepare the vital energy workforce for rapid technological changes coming to the industry,” she continued. “Leveraging the national footprint of the EPCE coalition provides an established infrastructure to rapidly deploy the new online curriculum.”
The EPCE coalition is collaborating with Bismarck State College (BSC) National Energy Center of Excellence (NECE) to create three online courses focused on smart grid technologies. The first course has launched with close to 300 enrollments from employees in five utilities, and it will be opened up to the public at large in mid-November.
Also with the DOE grant funding, CAEL is developing innovative workforce models using online education for high school and community college partnerships, as well as a program for substation technicians using a corporate blended learning model.
“The utility system is going to operate in a much more automated way, and it’s important for our workers to understand how it will work,” said Tom Burns, director of training at Northeast Utilities and an EPCE member. “That alone is a significant change.”
“We joined EPCE for their online technical certificates and associates degrees because we wanted to be part of a national industry effort, and because of the connection with BSC,” he continued. “It’s a great, universal way to access this kind of training.”
The BSC NECE, founded because of North Dakota’s major energy production and the need for specialized training in the state, is developing an innovative training solution on campus: a smart grid laboratory. This lab will simulate real-time smart grid technologies in action. Not only is the smart grid model housed at BSC and will be accessible in the onsite lab, it will also be available online to anyone with an internet connection.
“One of our missions is to support industry,” said Zachary Allen, energy tech program project manager at NECE. “And to have new technology merge with industry, we need folks who are trained on how to operate these things—how they work and to be able to maintain them.”
“Because BSC focuses on operations,” he continued, “having an operable smart grid lab where folks can analyze and use a smart grid system from anywhere in the world, and allowing them to see how a smart grid works without impacting liability, is very important.”
The smart grid lab model is in the design and build stage, with an estimated completion date of March 2013.
Despite tremendous efforts made toward developing the technology to support renewable energy sources, the “smart grid” is still a relatively new concept. One of the challenges facing the industry is, simply, awareness.
“We want to make sure that the employees, the frontline workers who will be ‘running’ the smart grid, aren’t a mere afterthought,” explained Raquel Velez DeGroot, program director for CAEL’s smart grid efforts. “We’re just figuring out what knowledge and skills the smart grid utility worker of the future needs, but our objective is to make sure the training needs of the workers are front and center in these early development stages.”
Other challenges facing the industry with smart grid deployment include developing national standards for the smart grid, policy issues, and customer buy-in. However, with government funding, as well as a strong collaboration between energy companies and educational providers, the industry is well on its way toward preparing the future workforce.
“We believe in our workforce,” said Burns. “If you want to control your destiny in terms of curriculum as opposed to having it done for you, you’ll want to partner with others in the industry so you can provide the best training across the country for your employees.”
Colleen A. Luckett is a marketing coordinator at CAEL, aligned with their DOE grant smart grid efforts.
Learn more about the benefits of EPCE membership, as well as online energy courses offered at http://www.epceonline.com.
Learn more about CAEL at http://www.cael.org.