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Wanted: Smart Workers for Smart Grid

Promise of a smart grid depend on trained workers.

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Early this week, President Obama gave a speech touting the $3.4 billion in grants the federal government has awarded to local companies, utilities and cities working to improve the country’s aging and outmoded electric energy grid. The awards will support “smart grid” technology that enables easier and more effective transmission of electricity from one region to another. One of the recipients is Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative (PNGC), a Portland-based electric generation and transmission cooperative owned by 16 Northwest electric utilities. The grant will fund installation of “95,000 smart meters, substation equipment, and load management devices that will integrate electric cooperatives across four states using a central data collection software system hosted by PNGC.”

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But will all the smart grid money create green collar jobs?

Unfortunately—and surprisingly considering unemployment rates—according to a recent report by the National Commission on Energy Policy, smart-grid investment will require trained workers who aren’t yet available in large numbers.

So, what is a smart grid and how do we build it? Here’s how Obama described the importance of developing smart grid technology:

To offer one analogy, just imagine what transportation was like in this country back in the 1920s and 1930s before the Interstate Highway System was built. It was a tangled maze of poorly maintained back roads that were rarely the fastest or the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, President Eisenhower made an investment that revolutionized the way we travel -- an investment that made our lives easier and our economy grow.

The highway example is a common one but probably not the best. And the term “smart grid” is in serious danger of becoming another empty buzzword. If you have the time, I highly recommend a presentation by Roger Levy of the Smart Grid Technical Advisory Project  based at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Levy gave the presentation at last month’s meeting of the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

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Smart grid is really about integrating demand and supply from the on-off switch on your dishwasher all the way to the source of energy production. Our current energy grid wasn’t built for this kind of integration. If renewable energy is going to work as a replacement for more resource-intensive sources (coal, for example), there has to be a way to get that energy into the grid so consumers can reliably buy it. when it’s windy at one point of entry into the grid, windmill energy needs to be generated then supplied to another point on the grid where there is no wind. That means infrastructure—equipment and transmission wires—to get the energy to the market place.

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Rate design is also important. Rates need to be structured so that consumers are incentivized to use energy when it is less taxing on the overall system (when wind energy is abundant, for example), and to make improvements to their facilities and homes to improve efficiencies.

But who is going to build, operate, and maintain all this new infrastructure and technology to make the smart grid work?  The Commission’s report found that about 30 to 40 percent of the electric power sector’s workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2013 and of those, 58,200 will be skilled craft workers, exactly the people who could build the smart grid.

The study further found that nationwide, smart grid technology will require an additional 90,000 workers. This is a huge green-collar job opportunity. But the barriers for training workers I described in my post, Green Collar Jobs Start With Basic Skills, are the same for the electric power sector; basic skills aren’t being integrated into technical training programs. The report cites “lack of math and science skills in the population” and “lack of career preparatory skills” as significant barriers to ensuring a ready workforce for the new green-collar army we’re going to need. This is further hampered by lack of portability of credentials and training certifications between different schools and training programs.

It’s not the worst problem you could have—people need jobs and the demand is being created. The question is one of coordination so that the work can get done and people can get back to work in our communities. To that end, the report recommends more or less what Oregon has started doing, getting important players—unions, educators, utilities—in the same room to start tackling these problems. Last session the Oregon legislature passed HB 3300 which tasked the State Workforce Investment Board to “leverage and align existing public workforce development programs and other public and private resources to the goal of recruiting, supporting, educating and training of targeted populations of workers.”

The good news is that the effort is getting started. It is likely that the biggest step toward capturing the efficiencies inherent in smart grid technology won’t depend on that technology at all, but on breaking down age-old barriers between basic education and workforce training. 

This piece originally appeared in Sightline

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