What Keeps Smart Grid Leaders Awake At Night?

Halloween is the season for frights and scares.  And in keeping with that theme, let’s consider what keeps our leading government officials and industry representatives for the Smart Grid awake at night.  The final GridWeek panel discussion last Thursday featured Jon Wellinghoff (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – FERC), George Arnold (National Institute of Standards and Technology – NIST), Mark McGranaghan (Electric Power Research Institute – EPRI), Hank Kenchington (Department of Energy – DOE), and Gerry Cauley (North American Electric Reliability Corporation – NERC).  They shared their perspectives on challenges and opportunities with the Smart Grid, and when asked about their greatest Smart Grid fears, there was consensus around two themes – cyber security and workforce supply. 

Cyber security concerns have always been prominently featured in the US government’s Smart Grid vision.  NIST has been diligently overseeing ambitious public/private work to develop recommendations for Smart Grid interoperability standards that address cyber security concerns,  and with the exception of a few vendors who would like to keep things closed and proprietary, the vast majority of manufacturers understand that open, standards-based solutions offer the best defense to “harden” the grid and reduce cyber attacks.  The recent discovery of the Stuxnet worm, designed to penetrate the Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems that monitor and control generation, transmission, and distribution operations in electric utilities, underscored the fact that terrorism can be conducted remotely and bloodlessly to effectively cripple businesses or nations.

However, cyber attack is not the only threat to the existing electrical grid and ongoing transitions to a Smart Grid.  We don’t have the next generation of workers to address the demographic reality that US utilities will lose between 45% to 50% of their skilled workforce through retirement in the next few years.  The jobs range from highly technical field and managerial positions, and the loss of institutional knowledge throughout a utility can increase inefficiencies in business processes and add costs to operations.  For some positions that require power engineering knowledge, we simply lack enough college-level programs and students to replace workers.  There are plans underway to increase training opportunities for new workers and to capture the practical experience and knowledge of departing employees.  This is a good time for utilities (and regulators) to examine their business processes to streamline productivity through automation and improved operational, managerial, and oversight practices.

Halloween is also a time for costumes, and in California, that means it is the time of year for propositions to be masquerading as things they are not. Proposition 23 is sponsored by two out of state oil companies in an attempt to overturn California’s landmark clean air legislation enacted in 2006.  Since they happen to be two of the largest air polluters in California, it’s easy to understand their motivation to protect their profits, which unfortunately come at the expense of the health of Californians.  Proponents say they are really concerned about the effects of the clean air laws on the state economy, but this legislation is already delivering job growth and investments as California transitions to a clean tech economy.  Indeed, this transition is vital to our national security as we strive to reduce our dependence on energy imports and rely on American-made electrons for our electricity needs.  It’s time for Californians to put a stake in the heart of this sinister and cynical proposition and vote no on 23.