Emerging and Sustainable Technology

Educating the Future Smart Grid Workforce

How can the U.S. educate in the future to remain globally competitive?

by / September 21, 2012 0
Massoud Amin, director, Technological Leadership Institute, University of Minnesota. Photo by Flickr/Poptech. Photo by Flickr/Poptech

Not only is Massoud Amin a scholar and educator, he’s also considered the “father of the smart grid.”  He’s a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he directs the Technological Leadership Institute, and he’s worked on research and development projects for a wide range of systems, including power grids, aviation and ground traffic control, Department of Defense logistic networks, and more.

Amin previously spoke with
Government Technology about a sustainable smart grid and the governance and impact of broadband on the grid. But in this expanded Q&A, he shares insight into the history of the smart grid, where it’s going, and how the U.S. can educate the future smart grid workforce to remain globally competitive.

1. What’s the history behind the smart grid?

A groundbreaking research program was conducted jointly by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) from 1998 to 2001. The goal of this program was to develop ways for power grids to adapt automatically to deal with unforeseen events, like power failures, to minimize the adverse impacts these events can have. The project provided the mathematical foundations and simulations for a “smart and self-healing grid” and established its feasibility. Hundreds of professors and graduate students from 28 U.S. universities participated, along with 52 utilities and grid operators.

Experts from around the world have continued to work assiduously on a wide range of initiatives to advance and refine the smart grid concept. Governments and regions now recognize smart grid’s importance. Recent policies introduced in the U.S., China, India, the United Kingdom and the European Union have formalized specific goals for national and regional smart grid deployments. These policies are helping attract a high level of interest in smart grids.

2. How do you envision the next 10 years?

Various scenarios that have been suggested for a smart grid vary, and they vary wildly. But a common understanding has emerged that, in the coming years, electricity will play a much greater role in the global society than at present.

I believe it is entirely possible that nations, regions and cities that best implement new strategies and infrastructure could reshuffle the world pecking order. It’s very possible that emerging markets could leapfrog other nations in smart grid markets and deployment. For example, while the U.S. has invested about $7.8 billion in smart grid technologies, China has invested $7.3 billion and will spend $96 billion on smart grid technology by 2020, when its energy needs are expected to double.

3. What are some of the things that drive smart grid development?

Global drivers for smart grid development and deployments are multifaceted, and there are no cookie-cutter solutions. The drivers are often created by local, regional and/or national priorities, and drivers for advanced economies can differ from those of developing ones. Motivations are also influenced by various factors in the larger, macro system, such as standards, technologies and policies. How decision-makers perceive and manage risks under uncertain conditions is another factor. For example, it is impossible to anticipate if and when an oil peak will come, since new discoveries occur repeatedly; the policies individual nations will adopt for nuclear power; and how climate action across the globe will evolve. Social changes are also a significant part of this macro system that can impact a country’s or region’s smart grid motivations.

4. What are the goals when it comes to smart grid development?

To ensure that we can reliably and securely meet our growing energy needs, we must use energy resources more efficiently. To do this, we must set and achieve some very strategic goals. We must transform transportation by expanding homegrown fuel sources, and we must electrify transportation. We must reduce emissions by greening the electric power supply. We must build a stronger and smarter electrical energy infrastructure that is self-healing and can rapidly restore services to eliminate systemic failures. And we must enhance the security and cybersecurity of critical power and energy infrastructure. We must also expand the associated market sectors and business opportunities in these areas.

5. Will the creation/expansion of a smart grid call for an increase in a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce?

We need an increase in the entire STEM workforce to deal with smart grid and many other important technologies that are shaping business and society today. The World Economic Forum has ranked the United States 51st in the quality of science and math education it provides.

I do believe these are very promising times, however, because there is increased recognition of the strategic need for new core technologies and capabilities that can enhance our quality of life. But we must make a conscious choice to fund technology development and training, and put mechanisms in place to train technology leaders in these new areas.

6. You’re in the education field — do you think the nation is prepared? If not, what must be done to make the U.S. prepared as well as remain globally competitive?

"The empires of the future," said Winston Churchill, "are the empires of the mind." Echoing this in his 1981 book, Investing in People: The Economics of Population Quality, economist and Nobel Laureate Theodore Schultz argued that the wealth of nations is not limited by land or minerals, it comes predominantly from, "the acquired abilities of people, their education, experience, skills and health."

What are we doing about this? I don't mean to overstate the roles of science and technology, but nations that invest in those fields of human capital do better economically than those nations that do not.

We must invest in education, and technology education, if we intend to build a 21st- century economy that is supported by high-quality infrastructure. According to Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 60 percent of the U.S. economy is driven by technology. The abilities of our workers to perform and innovate in technology fields directly impact our national security, job creation, and our companies’ leadership and competitiveness in global markets.

We must also continue to invest in research. Today, U.S. spending in research and development (R&D) accounts for about 2.3 to 2.5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). U.S. scientists and engineers working in R&D make up about 75 out of every 10,000 people employed in the country. For comparison, the proportions are about 80 researchers for every 10,000 employees in Japan, 50 out of 10,000 employees in the UK, 30 out of10,000 in Italy and less than a handful per 10,000 in most developing countries.

Companies that invest in R&D can position themselves to advance and launch technological innovations. I must point out, however, that we are significantly and unfortunately disadvantaged by a lack of research and development in the U.S. electric power system.

And we must invest in smart grids to ensure our ability to compete in increasingly competitive global markets. Most of the infrastructure used in the U.S. electric power system was deployed in the 1960s and 1970s, and the system is overloaded.  

Infrastructure Overload

In the last 10 years, the number of power outages per year in the country has increased from 152 to 248, says Massoud Amin. “Depending on what part of the United States you live in, the grid averages 90 to 214 minutes of interrupted service, or blackouts, per customer per year.”

The outage data excludes interruptions caused by extraordinary events such as fires or extreme weather, he said. “Japan, by contrast, averages only four minutes of interrupted service each year. And the costs add up. The total number of outages and power quality disruptions cost the nation an average $100 billion per year, ranging from $80 billion to $188 billion. And the outages inconvenience everybody because they shut down businesses, schools and the services we use in our daily life.”

7. What is a self-healing infrastructure?

A self-healing grid uses digital components and real-time communications technologies installed throughout a grid to monitor the grid’s electrical characteristics at all times and constantly tune itself so that it operates at an optimum state. It has the intelligence to constantly look for potential problems caused by storms, catastrophes, human error or even sabotage. It will react to real or potential abnormalities within a fraction of a second, just as a military fighter jet reconfigures itself to stay aloft after it is damaged. The self-healing grid isolates problems immediately as they occur, before they snowball into major blackouts, and reorganizes the grid and reroutes energy transmissions so that services continue for all customers while the problem is physically repaired by line crews.

8. Does the smart grid need to have a self-healing infrastructure?

It needs a self-healing infrastructure to ensure that power grid can continue to operate reliably for businesses and consumers who depend on it. A smart grid that is overlaid with the various sensors, communications, automation and control features that allow it to deal with unforeseen events and minimize their impacts will be resilient and secure.

The annual business losses in the U.S. from electrical failures average about $100 billion. Much of this is from short power interruptions. On any day in the U.S., about a half million people are without power for two or more hours.  

Not only can a self-healing grid avoid or minimize blackouts and associated costs, it can minimize the impacts of deliberate attempts by terrorists or others to sabotage the power grid. Its ability to seamlessly maintain services under all of these types of conditions makes our country more secure. And overall, it improves the quality of electricity services for end-users.


Karen Stewartson

Karen Stewartson served as the managing editor of Government Technology for many years. She also contributed to Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.