One of the main challenges facing the utility industry today is the demand for clean, green electricity, says Nick Schwandt, journeyman lineman for Ameren. Through solar panels, wind generation and hydro power, utilities are making their power plants more energy efficient, he says. Linemen are also saving energy by driving hybrid utility trucks and vehicles in the field.
With the new presidential administration and the push to go green, more utilities could soon be getting on board with alternative energy. In fact, more than 40 GW of new renewable energy capacity will be needed to meet state requirements, according to the recent report “Transforming America's Power Industry: the Investment Challenge 2010-2030” by the Brattle Group. Six states currently have a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and require electric utilities to sell a minimum amount of renewable energy. For example, Texas must add 2000 MW of generating capacity this year.
The focus on renewable energy affects utility executives as well as linemen out in the field. Many times, wind farm developers call on linemen to interconnect wind turbines to the grid. Oftentimes, these linemen may be required to work in remote rural areas to assist a large team of workers including electricians to wind technicians.
Many states, such as Texas and California, have utility-scale wind farms, and many other states are following suit, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Utility-scale wind power projects will add 5000 MW of capacity over the next five years, according to the AWEA. One megawatt of wind capacity can supply 240 to 300 American homes, and so far, California is leading the way with more than 2000 MW, and Texas is second with 1200 MW.
In addition to working on wind farms, linemen may encounter small-scale residential wind turbines during storm or restoration work. Some homeowners are investing in these turbines to offset electricity costs and create green energy. By knowing how these turbines work and how they're interconnected to the grid, linemen can stay out of harm's way if the system generates backup electricity during an outage.
Day in the Sun
Utilities are not only working with wind farms but also photovoltaic providers to provide green electricity to their consumers. For example, utilities on the West Coast asked the Electric Power Research Institute to study how to increase the efficiency of solar power. The project will explore whether or not it would be possible to build a solar power plant in the 50-MW to 500-MW range.
Currently, the United States has one utility-sized solar plant in Nevada and three in California. New Mexico-based PNM Resources is also looking to build a solar plant by 2010.
In addition to building utility-scale solar energy plants, utilities are also investing in projects to install photovoltaic panels to generate green electricity. Last December, Edison International announced an $875 million plan to install solar panels on 2 sq miles of rooftops on warehouses and factories in California.
Utilities also can do their part to save the environment by investing in hybrid vehicles. At least one manufacturer already sells a line of medium-duty diesel-electric hybrid trucks to electric utilities, and other vendors are exploring this technology.
Two Southeast utilities also recently participated in a trial to test plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The trial, which began in November 2008, is testing whether or not 12 Toyota Prius cars can impact electric grid operations, maximize use of clean energy and demonstrate that these types of cars are a viable alternative.
Some of the nation's largest automakers are also trying to help utilities reduce emissions and conserve energy. For example, Ford Motor Co. announced that it was expanding its test program to include electric utilities. By partnering with utility companies, the automaker hopes to speed up the commercialization of plug-in hybrid vehicles. The company hopes to introduce a battery-electric van next year for commercial use.
Adapting to Change
As more utilities are investing in renewable energy systems and hybrid vehicles, linemen need to keep up with the changing technology. By reading news reports, attending conferences and participating in training sessions, linemen can prepare themselves for the opportunities that lie ahead.