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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Wanda Reder

Wanda Reder is Chair of the IEEE Smart Grid Task Force, past-president of the IEEE PES (Power & Energy Society), and vice president of the Power Systems Services Division at S&C Electric Company.

Wanda Reder discusses how the IEEE Power and Energy Society is working to get more students and engineers interested in making Smart Grid a reality.

Question: What is the biggest challenge facing Smart Grid?

Surprisingly, it is not the technology. By 2020, about 50% of the utility workforce that is in place today may leave their jobs. As our engineers and technicians retire or leave the industry, we are going to lose their broad experience and skills. We will also be losing their in-depth knowledge of the systems and infrastructure that they have been operating and maintaining for decades.

So, right now, our biggest challenge is finding and preparing people to step into the shoes of all the people that are leaving. The people we find also need to be capable of taking on everything involved in making Smart Grid a reality.

Question: Fifty-percent is a huge number.

Yes, it is. And it is only an estimate. The Center for Energy Workforce Development conducted a survey of electricity providers and found that nearly half of the people in the workforce could leave their jobs by 2015. Due to the uncertain economy, many who said they would be leaving will end up staying on a few more years. Unfortunately, this has caused employers to stop, or slow down hiring new employees, just when we really need to see new people entering the industry.

Question: What is being done to get more people in the pipeline?

Fortunately, this knowledge gives us the motivation to do something to turn the tide. We are more focused than ever on increasing educational opportunities in the power and energy fields. We are also working hard to generate more interest in emerging Smart Grid technologies.

I look at the situation in the workplace right now as a 2x2 matrix. We have a mix of traditional equipment and new equipment in the network being cared for by a mix of experienced employees and new employees in the workforce. The new engineers are really jazzed about renewables, automation, high-tech solutions and Smart Grid. The timing of their entry into the workplace is critical.

The sooner they are added to the workforce, the sooner they can learn about the legacy networks from those who installed, operated and maintained them for the past several decades. Fortunately, we have a little more time than we would have because their teachers, the experienced workers, will be around for several years to come.

However, there is a lot of new equipment being added requiring workers with the appropriate skills to apply it to the existing system or replace, legacy grid equipment. New workers with diverse communication, power systems and information technology skills need to arrive on time and assist experienced workers with the new technologies that are being installed.

So, we must move quickly enough to provide both sets of employees with first hand experience and education they need during the transition. To accomplish this goal, we need to hire new employees.

Question: How will you attract the people you need in time?

That is really the key question. The secret to the power and energy industry’s success over the next decade will be our ability to attract unprecedented levels of talent. Over time, it has been increasingly difficult to get people interested in power and energy, but the tide is turning. The general public and students are beginning to see power and energy as an exciting field. They see that it offers them careers that enable them to contribute to society. They also see that it gets them directly involved in creating and implementing cutting edge technologies.

Question: What caused the lack of interest?

The lackluster hiring of the 1990s and 2000s left many of our university power and energy engineering programs without enough students. The impact of extremely weak university research support left some of the strongest programs in such a weakened state that they were shut down. The good news is that we are seeing increasing student interest and new infusions of research support. Both things are helping to rebuild power and energy programs in our universities.

Question: How did things begin to turn around?

This upswing has followed the lead taken by the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES). In 2009, the PES wrote and published a report that established six objectives designed to proactively respond to the need for innovative research and pointing more promising engineering students toward power and energy careers.

Three of those objectives revolved around creating scholarships and internships designed to rapidly fill the pipeline with more undergraduate power and energy engineering students. The other three objectives focused on rebuilding the ranks of universities' power and energy faculty.

Question: How did that impact Smart Grid?

The report also helped to drive the Department of Energy's (DOE's) decision to provide $100 million in stimulus funding for Smart Grid education. A total of 52 grants were awarded. The grants are helping schools build educational programs across the U.S. that are targeted at Smart Grid. The awards support craft workers, engineers, community colleges, universities and many other aspects of academia and industry. This diverse mix of stakeholders is working to rebuild the educational elements that are critical to Smart Grid's success.

As a result, more students enter the power and energy field. Many are eligible to take advantage of the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative. It helps to attract undergraduate electrical engineering students to the Smart Grid pipeline by providing three one-year scholarships of $2,000, $2,000 and $3,000 in students' sophomore, junior and senior years. All they need to do is meet academic and student career experience requirements. They also have to attend an accredited school and keep a 3.0 grade point average. Available in the U.S. now, the PES intends to offer them globally, too.

Question: Are you providing any other incentives?

Students commit to power and energy careers when they are able to have career experiences, such as internships, added to their scholastic experience. We encourage students to use the PES-Careers website to find internships in our industry that fit their needs and career objectives. PES believes that the quickest way to get students and others interested in the industry is to attract people that are already studying engineering, but are not sure which direction they want to go with their studies or careers. We offer them a "home," of sorts. And we help them get connected with people that give them guidance and provide them with actual hands-on experience.

Getting students to commit to careers that will help us make Smart Grid a reality requires a commitment from the power and energy industry. We need to provide those students with financial support and offer them meaningful career experiences as they learn. We also need to encourage professionalism through networking and lifelong educational opportunities.

Wanda K. Reder is chair of IEEE Smart Grid and the 2008-09 President of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES). She served on the IEEE PES Governing Board from 2000-2011. Ms. Reder is also a member of U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu's Electricity Advisory Committee and vice president of the Power Systems Services Division at S&C Electric Company.