Lack of Trained Workforce Still an Obstacle to Smart Grid Success

DOE Estimates Energy Efficiency Jobs Could Triple in 10 Years, But Training Lags

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Ever since the phrase “smart grid” started showing up in news articles, analysts have been looking at what it would take for a smarter power grid to deliver on promises of energy savings, reduced emissions and lower bills.

They have discovered one huge need that isn’t being addressed: enough workers trained to do such things as conduct energy audits, help perform energy-efficient retrofits of buildings and install the sensors and transmitters necessary to make the grid smart.

New studies from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculate just how many trained workers will be needed to implement the smart grid in the United States, and, more importantly, they reveal that no one really knows where those workers will come from. 

“There is a shortage of formal training programs in energy efficiency and an extremely high demand right now thanks to the infusion of funding for energy efficiency from the growth in ratepayer-funded utility programs and federal and state budgets devoted to efficiency, for example, in programs funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” said Charles H. Goldman, a scientist in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Berkeley Lab.

Workers Needed at Every Level

Green job training programs, since their inception, have largely focused on training rooftop solar installers — a necessary trade, but one that is currently less in demand than utility workers who understand energy efficiency.

The rollout of the smart grid won’t create just green-collar jobs. The Berkeley Lab report cites three areas where qualified workers are needed: senior management staff with experience in the energy efficiency sector, experienced energy efficiency engineers, and building and construction tradespeople trained in the energy efficiency sector.

After conducting interviews with 33 professionals at universities throughout the country, however, the Berkeley Lab team surmised that while most professional roles within the energy efficiency services sector require at least a four-year degree, few colleges or universities offer energy efficiency-specific curricula and those that do are typically dealing with extremely limited funding.

The largest need is still for skilled tradespeople, with the building and construction industries accounting for 65 to 70 percent of the workforce in the energy efficiency services sector, according to the Berkeley Lab report.

“The building and construction trades and contractors have limited awareness that the energy efficiency service sector is poised to grow significantly, and that their skills will be required as part of this growth,” says report co-author Jane S. Peters.

In addition to needing laborers trained specifically in energy efficiency, the building and utility industries are both struggling with the reality of an aging labor force that is not being augmented quickly enough by new recruits.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average utility employee is 43.7 years old, and the median age will continue to increase over the next 25 years. More than 148,000 U.S. utility employees fall in the 55-to-64-year-old range; an additional 26,000 employees are already over age 65. A recent study published by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) showed that 61 percent of line superintendents are age 50 or older and preparing to retire in the next five to 10 years.

“The imminent loss of such a large number of highly skilled utility professionals, whose considerable training and expertise is extremely valuable to both utility performance and safety, represents a growing dilemma within the power industry,” writes Wayne Bishop Jr. of Doble Engineering Co., who conducted an assessment of the industry’s aging workforce.

“It is imperative utilities focus on their plan over the next five to 10 years to minimize the loss of critical knowledge and skills. To implement a solution, it is necessary to determine what types of knowledge utilities are at the highest risk of losing, and develop methods to transfer that knowledge to the next generation of utility professionals.”

Education and Training

The combination of a loss of experienced utility workers, a relatively small number of energy efficiency experts and a lack of professional training programs targeted at the areas most needed by the energy efficiency services sector is a huge obstacle to the success of the smart grid.

“Not surprisingly, states that have been operating energy efficiency programs for years, such as California, New England, Pacific Northwest, have a better training infrastructure and a larger pool of construction trades trained in implementing energy efficiency projects than states that are just beginning to pursue energy efficiency,” says Peters.

Nonetheless, even states that are ahead of the curve on training employees to work in the energy efficiency sector are not doing enough to fill the looming need in the sector.

In a not-yet-published companion study, the Berkeley Lab research team estimates that the size of the energy efficiency sector workforce is currently at about 120,000 full-time equivalent workers, a number the team expects to grow to anywhere from 220,000 to 380,000 by the year 2020.

The Berkeley Lab report echoes the concerns voiced by Portland Energy Conservation, Inc. (PECI) last year in the paper “Wiring the Smart Grid for Energy Savings,” which focused on ensuring that the smart grid lives up to its potential to reduce energy use. But while the Berkeley report puts the number of higher education or training programs focused on energy efficiency at 492, PECI author Hannah Friedman says no program currently exists to train a large number of people to do the various jobs required to make the smart grid work as a way to reduce energy usage.

“A variety of jobs will be needed if the smart grid is going to have any effect on energy usage — from technicians who install, program, and service the systems to energy engineers who design the systems, write the specifications, and provide commissioning services,” Friedman says.

“We need training in controls integration, metering, data analysis, and system operation and troubleshooting.”

And in addition to training everyone from energy auditors to engineers to utility and construction workers, there is a real need to “train the trainers,” as both Berkeley Lab and PECI point out. According to the Building Performance Institute, which provides certification for residential retrofit contractors, the number of contractors applying for certifications increased five-fold between 2005 and 2008, and the institute believes the number has almost tripled between 2008 and 2009.

Education and training seem to be major stumbling blocks for the smart grid at the moment. In recent months, reports have surfaced pinpointing consumers’ lack of knowledge about smart grid technology and smart metering and the lack of skilled workers with regards to energy efficiency.

There are signs, however, that both the industry and the government are moving to address these issues.

Last month, several smart grid companies and trade groups formed the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a new group aimed at engaging and educating consumers about the energy savings possible via the smart grid. And late last week, the Department of Energy announced $95 million in grants for smart grid training programs. Aimed at funding both new smart-grid-focused training programs and enhancing existing utility worker training programs, the grants are largely funding green-collar job training programs, but a handful of universities, colleges and technical schools also received funding for two- or four-year programs.


See also:

Clean Tech Jobs Spring Up as Investment Pours in and Factories are Transformed

Universities Start Tailoring Degrees to Green Jobs

Where are the Green Jobs?