Thursday, 7 May 2009

Energy Risk - Replenishing the Ranks

If green energy is to launch the nation into a new economic realm, then modern technologies and skilled engineers must be the catalyst.

But a flood of retirements may thwart that promise, prompting industry, academia and government to collaborate and offer tangible ways to ensure progress. President Obama's rise has also energized the utility sector and given it an opportunity to help pivot the nation into economic recovery. Indeed, the emphasis on reducing carbon emissions and the greening of corporate America is leading to the research and development of alternative generation and the intelligent utility that offers two-way communications between providers and their customers. And while that may spark interests in power engineering, the fear is that the overall effort may be insufficient.
"The corollary of 'the market will solve the engineering workforce problem' is that 'I don't have to take any responsibility for the solution'. The thesis of the Collaborative Action Plan is that all stakeholders need to take ownership of some part of the solution."
The Collaborative Action Plan to which Ray refers is led by the IEEE Power & Energy Society and is an initiative to address concerns about the U.S. power and energy engineering workforce. Federal and state regulators, for example, would consider how their rules might affect recruitment. Industry, meanwhile, would sponsor scholarships and research efforts while higher education would offer degreed programs to meet the expected future hiring needs.

Skill-gap risk in action

Over the next five years, roughly 45 percent of electrical engineers in this country will be eligible for retirement, according to a 2008 survey by the Center for Energy Workforce Development. That translates into the need
  • educate,
  • hire and
  • train 7,000 power engineers.
And while many of those eligible to quit working will continue on either because they choose to do so or because they cannot afford to stop, the same survey shows that the schools can't crank out enough graduates to fill would-be openings.

Pending retirements within academia are also undermining efforts to gear up.

The IEEE says that about 40 percent of electrical power engineering professors will have reached the age of retirement in the next five years but it goes on to estimate that 27 percent of them will actually step down. In any event, the process to encourage interest in power engineering begins at the elementary school level where math and science must be emphasized. Those students that excel by high school should then have an opportunity to receive scholarships. The goal is to double the number of graduate and undergraduate students completing electric power and energy engineering degrees and to assist by providing $4 million in immediate awards and $50 million in research to such schools over the next five to eight years.

Mass Exit

When deregulation of the energy sector surfaced in the 1990s, technically oriented positions were forsaken in favor of those emphasizing marketing and finance. But as the nation makes its transition to a digital economy that will profoundly affect the energy sector, the need to hire for power engineering jobs is paramount.
That immediate demand for knowledge, however, has run headlong into a recession that is forcing utilities to postpone their capital expenditures in generation and transmission.
Undoubtedly, the electricity industry faces a serious paradox involving its commitment to modernize its infrastructure with the short-term financial hits it is now taking. The economic lull may quell any sudden mass exit of qualified engineers. But utilities generally realize that it not a viable long-term solution. Both Wall Street and the credit rating agencies, in fact, have said that the 'utilities of the future', those that making key investments in the smart grid and clean energy generation, will be best positioned to attract capital and remain creditworthy.
"We will ride out the storm while our 401ks recover. But that masks the problem. We can try to keep those seniors engaged and they will for a period. But eventually they will retire. We will still have to bring in the new engineers to be mentored. The worst thing we can do is to not bring in new ones right now. We need to prime the pump.
Clearly, the power industry is trying to be proactive. According to a study performed by Sierra Energy Group, a division of Energy Central, about 57 percent of all utilities have a strategy in place for managing the impeding shortage of qualified workers. FirstEnergy of Cleveland, for example, has hired hundreds of experts in everything from engineering to information systems, all to permit newer employees to learn from veteran workers. The Progress Energy Foundation, furthermore, has distributed millions to educational institutions throughout North Carolina so as to attract everyone from engineers to linemen. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs Utility sponsors local power engineering classes and Bismarck State College in North Dakota offers technical instruction in electrical transmission and nuclear power technology.
"With the stimulus package and its thrust on the smart grid and renewable energy, the power industry is brandishing its image. It is not clear, however, that we have the people in place to deliver the desired outcome."
The push for next generation power plants and intelligent grids is certainly getting stronger and giving new luster to a utility industry long thought to be in the Dark Ages. The result, in any case, underscores the need for all stakeholders to collaborate in the effort to replenish the utility ranks with a fresh crop of power engineers.

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