Practical Advice n Developing a Smart Grid Work Force

By Erich W. Gunther, IEEE

Preparing the work force to support smart grid application deployment creates many issues. One of those issues is related to the changing field work force needs, especially to support the merger of electrical apparatus infrastructure with communications infrastructure. This includes new linemen training as well as finding a role for meter readers in those utility territories where automated meter reading is being deployed.

I have seen a lot of discussion around these issues and there are many non-degree education programs sprouting up that focus on this need. (See the list at In this article, I want to focus more on the changing requirements for electric power engineer skills in a smart grid world.

Eyeballing Education

Engineering schools with an electric power concentration option traditionally have focused on a standardized set of basic electric Power Engineering disciplines and supporting mathematics.Typical topics include: basic steady state electric power theory, transmission line characteristics, symmetrical components, load flow, short circuit and stability analysis, power generation and control, transient analysis, electromagnetic fields, power electronics and several others. We have been turning out electric power engineers with these core disciplines for decades. There’s a new trend in universities, however, to encourage engineers to go beyond the masters program and seek a doctorate in a narrow discipline of electric Power Engineering.

From my point of view as an employer of electric power engineers, this trend has resulted in an ever-decreasing pool of broad-interest engineers which normally come out of a masters level program. This broad-interest engineer is exactly the engineer we need to address the extreme breadth of engineering challenges related to grid modernization, unfortunately. In all honesty, I can’t really use an engineer that has spent the past two years or three years in a PhD program drilling down into the nuances of how to optimize one specific issue related to a snubber circuit in a power electronic front end for a specific type of power electronic inverter.

Finding Definitions in Legislation

So we don’t need that specialized PhD, but what skills do we really need in a smart grid engineer? The answer lies in the disciplines implied in various definitions of the smart grid. The starting point I use is the list of smart grid functions in the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 legislation, including:

  • The ability to store, send and receive digital information through a combination of devices;
  • The ability to do same to or from a computer or control device;
  • The ability to measure and monitor as a function of time of day, power quality, source and type of generation, etc.;
  • The ability to sense disruptions in power flows and communicate on such instantaneously;
  • The ability to detect, respond to and recover relative to security threats;
  • The ability of appliances and equipment to respond without human intervention;
  • The ability to use digital information for grid operations that were previously electromechanical or manual; and
  • The ability to use digital controls to manage demand and congestion and provide ancillary services.

These functions are not unique to the U.S. definition of smart grid; they are consistent with applications that define grid modernization and, hence, the smart grid around the world. These functions do imply disciplines that are not normally found in the electric Power Engineering work force. If I summarize these into categories of skills for a smart grid engineer, I come up with eight categories:

1. Basic electrical and electric Power Engineering;
2. Communications;
3. Distributed computing / intelligence / complex systems;
4. Security;
5. Systems-of-systems engineering;
6. Enterprise architecture;
7. Business, economics and regulation; and
8. Enhanced people skills.

What the Categories Mean

The first category is the basic electric Power Engineering skill set and educational curriculum we have traditionally employed. We need to focus on ensuring that young engineers have a firm grasp of these fundamentals and develop an inherent understanding of the behavior of electric power systems in steady state and transient conditions.

The second category is rapidly becoming obvious and has seen some attention. Utility communication architecture has been evolving rapidly over the last 20 years with initial application of networking technologies such as TCP/IP occurring in the ’90s well before it was fashionable. The problem is: We still have far too few electric power engineers with the communications expertise to see the bigger picture and integration challenges and opportunities.

The third category of distributed computing is critical to manage the increasing system complexity we are planning to deploy to achieve the grid modernization value expected. Simply extending centralized command and control paradigms to support smart grid applications is not scalable to the number of sensing and controllable devices envisioned. Localized computing and decision making are necessary, and the engineers who must design, plan and maintain those devices and systems need some level of experience in this new discipline. Additionally, a focus on maintaining physical and cybersecurity is critical to integrating the first three concepts.

All of these disciplines come together under an overall umbrella of systems-of-systems engineering. A smart grid engineer must understand, analyze and manage the interactions of multiple components in the context of a collection of systems—each locally optimizing but also coordinated at higher levels to achieve more global goals. Technologists and the general public tend to focus on narrow segments of a particular problem, usually a particular device or small system. We will never achieve the value of smart grid with local optimization only; systems-of-systems engineering methodologies must be a key part of the future smart grid engineers’ toolboxes.

A modern grid has many applications that utilize a multitude of devices communicating with each other, connected electrically, producing and consuming information to achieve a set of common business goals. Many of these applications are implemented within the utility enterprise, or the back office. These emerging applications go well beyond the traditional applications of billing and customer information systems. The application complexity and required interactions depend on a well organized system of information exchange, or the enterprise architecture. Smart grid engineers need some background in the disciplines of information modeling, databases, service-oriented architecture and application integration in order to effectively design and optimize the electric Power Engineering related components.

The seventh category of business, economics and regulation has always been important, but grows more so with grid modernization underway. Engineers’ desired technical solutions must be prioritized based on business requirements discovered through traceable processes. The underlying economics of proposed solutions must be modeled and understood in as much detail as power system engineering models. We work in a regulated industry, and grid modernization requires spending money. Given that the regulatory community represents the consumer in determining how much money, when it will be spent and for which projects, smart grid engineers need to be familiar with the regulatory process.

Most importantly, enhanced people skills are a must for smart grid engineers. We have seen some drastic consequences related to the failure to communicate effectively with a utility’s customer base, including major push-backs on the deployment of smart meters and other grid technologies. Enhanced communications and people skills are also required to bridge utility organizational silos that would otherwise prevent implementation of many of the applications necessary to modernize the grid.

Some Final Advice

I have this advice for electric Power Engineering educators:

  • Develop in your students a holistic view and understanding of the power system.
  • Build in them a solid foundation of power systems behavior in steady state and transient domains.
  • Collaborate with other university departments including computer science, systems, electronics and business management.
  • Avoid creating siloed professionals.
  • Apply systems engineering discipline everywhere.
  • Keep your eyes open. Don’t reinvent; be aware of (and utilize) industry resources.
  • Listen carefully to overall industry needs, not just the noisiest or the biggest funder.

For engineering students and current engineering practitioners, I would suggest:

  • Think globally in systems-of-systems terms; systems engineering disciple is critical to your success.
  • Understand the power system thoroughly. Everything matters.
  • Discover system requirements.
  • Evaluate device and system interactions.
  • Manage technology change.
  • Appreciate and understand the business case.
  • Build in design metrics that can be captured to monitor technical and business performance.
  • Along the lines of my advice for academia already listed, keep your eyes open. Don’t reinvent; collaborate instead.
  • Engage in continuous learning and self improvement.

Erich W. Gunther is an IEEE fellow, Smart Grid Task Force member, chairman of the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s (PES) Intelligent Grid Coordinating Committee, IEEE PES Governing Board member and co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer of EnerNex.


Gather more information online by going to the website and typing “IEEE” into the search engine. You’ll find:

  • “Creating a Smart Grid Road Map” by Dick DeBlasio with the IEEE 2030 Working Group,
  • “Coordinating the Smart Grid’s New Phase of Global Implementation” by Chuck Adams, the past president of the IEEE Standards Association,
  • A perspectives commentary on the role of precise timing in the smart grid,
  • And more.

Visit for all the details.

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