Nurturing the Roots

In a time of market disruptors shaking up every incumbent industry, running an electric utility is also at a time of massive change. Coupled with the ongoing workforce crunch that has come about thanks to the retirements of the baby boomer generation, the skills transfers that once were learned on the job and developed through shadowing and apprenticeships are becoming less common.

Today’s utility employees must tackle their jobs with a constant state of learning and do so with the agility to learn new technologies and skills while also executing their day-to-day jobs. Now every function within a utility needs to make sense of new customer expectations and the ways they are pulling the utility into new endeavors, including support for electric vehicles, energy storage, distributed energy resources, and microgrids. These enhance the customer and utility relationship, but also introduce new complexities related to managing loads, data science, billing, and cybersecurity.

In 2013, the Electric Power Research Institute launched “GridEd” (The Center for Grid Engineering) to host the DOE initiative called GEARED, or “Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment.” GridEd is a partnership between EPRI, research universities, and industry advisers, to aid in creating the curricula and practices needed for both professional and academic education and training needs head on.

“The principle involved was that once these new technologies were ready, there would be new engineers coming through the university system with working knowledge ” said Tom Reddoch, a principal technical executive at EPRI who heads GridEd. “We would address a new workforce that from their very fundamental training coming out as engineers, would be educated in the role of solar and how it would fit with the electric grid.”

GridEd originally focused on solar and distributed energy resources, but it now expands further into new technologies as part of the “Grid-Ready Energy Analytics Training with Data,” or “GREAT with Data,” initiative, which focuses on five key technical areas: power system fundamentals, data science and predictive analytics, cybersecurity, information and communication technologies, and distributed energy resources integration.

This awareness of undergraduate education needs is coupled with awareness that the industry needed a retrofit for those already in the industry, he added. For this, GridEd and its partners roll out resources that leverage EPRI’s programs to educate members on new technologies and their use in the electric grid. This training component has focused on electric utility employees, but, because it is funded by DOE funds, it is also open to the public.

A Special Role for Public Power

Public power utilities involved with GridEd include Austin Energy, Lincoln Electric System in Nebraska, the New York Power Authority, Salt River Project in Arizona, and Santee Cooper in South Carolina. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Western Area Power Administration are GridEd industry advisers as well.

“Public power entities have been particularly involved with some of our outreach to increase engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which is a place where we really want to stress the importance of opening new opportunity,” Reddoch said. All of the six HBCUs in GridEd are sponsored by public power utilities.

“At its heart, GridEd is about creating the workforce that we’re going to need as our electric grid evolves and, moreover, continuing to support that workforce to be educated and trained in the new technologies that are driving all of the change in our industry,” he said. “Every time we introduce a new technology, there is a disruption, and we need to make sure that we are both enhancing the electric systems while ensuring that the incoming and existing employees are able to continue as core members of a utility’s workforce.”

This is particularly important in public power, where employees whose jobs are disrupted — he uses the example of meter readers in the wake of grid modernization efforts — are not just loyal employees, but part of the constituency the utility serves as a community-owned utility.

Creating a Bond Between Industry and Higher Education

The undergraduate education program is built off analyses by partners of existing university curricula to determine gaps for those coming out of existing power engineering programs. These curricula, especially at the undergraduate level, struggle to keep up with major industry changes related to data analytics and machine learning and the impact of energy storage and flexible loads. Nor are undergraduate programs addressing new technologies like 5G communications, cloud and edge computing, and artificial intelligence.

GridEd-affiliated utilities can nominate universities to become affiliates of the program and receive resources developed through the initiative.

“One key to having this involve the universities and the utilities is that it bonds the places that need this from both sides,” Reddoch said. “On one side is the source of the future engineers who are being educated in these principles and on the other is the industry that will hire them and need their knowledge in this, and where we’ll continue to support them through our training courses.”

“This is great for the utilities that take part in the partnerships with the universities because they’ve had an opportunity to have an influence on making the incoming workforce better before hiring them,” he said. “It’s letting the buyer improve the product before even buying it, you could say."