Half of the electric power industry's workforce is eligible for retirement in the next three to five years. As a result, it's more critical than ever before for the industry to train the next generation of workers.

To effectively address this problem, the power industry, governments and schools must collaborate to create effective curricula that meet the broadest possible base of smart grid skills. Electric utilities also must support internal training opportunities and back educational programs at affiliated institutions, according to KEMA.

Funding for Smart Grid Workforce Development

The U.S. Department of Energy's 2010 smart grid workforce training grants provided the energy industry with an opportunity to develop training to enhance the skills of the electric utility workforce. On behalf of the Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE), the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) earned a grant to develop smart grid curriculum as new smart grid technology is being deployed. As a group of industry representatives and education providers, EPCE develops, sponsors and promotes standardized online learning programs to meet workforce needs.

“Leveraging the national footprint of the EPCE coalition provides an established infrastructure to rapidly deploy the new online smart grid curriculum,” said Jo Winger de Rondon, vice president of CAEL. She said the industry collaboration of this coalition is key to its success, especially in the area of curriculum development. These courses are supported and created by the industry itself.

Push for a “Smart” Workforce

Utilities are in various stages of deployment of smart grid technology. Some are already looking for ways to optimize new equipment that's been installed to support the integration of renewable energy sources, two-way communication between consumers and energy providers, and real-time pricing. The critical challenge that many utilities face, however, is ensuring that as the technology is deployed, a knowledgeable workforce is available to operate the new technology.

“Every report we read and every conversation within the industry eventually comes around to the workforce,” said Raquel Velez DeGroot, project director for CAEL's smart grid efforts. “If the workforce isn't armed with new knowledge and skilled in emerging technologies, the investments we are making as a nation to enhance and secure our electric grid will not have the impact they must have.”

Industry-Driven Smart Grid Curriculum

EPCE partnered with Bismarck State College's (BSC) National Energy Center of Excellence (NECE) to offer an online associate's degree in applied science in electric power technology, providing students with a foundation in electrical systems, transformers, electric components, English and math. Leveraging this curriculum, built by the industry for the industry, EPCE and BSC collaborated again to deliver its smart grid curriculum.

The first course, “Renewable Energy Sources and the Smart Grid,” provides an overview of renewable energy and how it is integrated into the electric grid. “Operation Considerations for the Smart Grid” targets technical staff working the smart grid, covering topics such as potential operating strategies of the smart grid, technologies and systems used for the smart grid, and safety precautions for operating it. “Impact of the Smart Grid,” currently in development, will discuss topics ranging from the cultural impact of a smart grid to its impact on business and human resources to cyber-security concerns. An additional course, “Smart Grid, Smart Customer,” was developed with customer service representatives and other non-technical staff in mind. This course provides a high-level introduction to the smart grid to facilitate interaction with customers who want to understand these new technologies.

All these courses are non-credit and offered online, accessible 24/7, making them convenient for adults juggling work and family commitments.

The industry faces other challenges, including development of national standards. However, with strong collaborations between energy companies and educational providers, the industry is well on its way toward preparing the future workforce.

“We joined EPCE because we wanted to be part of a national industry effort,” said Tom Burns, director of training at Northeast Utilities, an EPCE member. “If you want to control your destiny in terms of curriculum, 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 (cluckett@cael.org) is a marketing professional at CAEL, aligned with their Department of Energy smart grid grant efforts.

Editor's note: To learn more about the benefits of EPCE membership, as well as online energy courses, visit www.epceonline.com. To learn more about CAEL, visit www.cael.org.