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Renewed Interest in Energy Sector

Need for smart grids, meters, infrastructure

By Peggy Albright

Information technology professionals who want to get in on the ground floor of a new and meaningful industry might be surprised to find some of the most exciting opportunities today in a previously humdrum sector: energy.

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The US energy industry, which in large part still operates with technologies built in the 1950s and 60s, is finally entering the digital era. While the need to modernize this aging system to improve efficiencies and reliability has been clear for some time, a convergence of “green” circumstances is forcing change right now in the industry.

These added influences include the new awareness in government, business, and society that environmentally friendly energy practices must be implemented immediately. There is a related acknowledgement among stakeholders that information and communications technologies must be added to the energy delivery infrastructure in order to make many of these improvements possible.

Smart grids a national priority

Some of the most revolutionary changes are occurring in the electric utility industry, where new, interactive, and dynamic communications technologies are finally making it possible to have “smart” electrical grids that, like the Internet, can be used to control operations more efficiently and to allow customers to monitor and provision their own services.

Smart grids are considered so important that federal legislation enacted in the past couple of years has declared the technology a national priority. Further, the economic stimulus package President Obama signed in February provides $4.5 billion to accelerate development of these systems, and billions more in funding for other clean energy and scientific initiatives that also have strong needs for information technologies.

Companies already hiring

The industry is so eager for smart grid functions that companies are already hiring in this area. With the stimulus package in place, thousands of IT jobs could open up this year, with tens of thousands more to come.

Clint Wheelock, founder and managing director of Pike Research, a clean technology market research and consulting firm, describes this unprecedented trend as the “IT-ification” of the energy business. He says it will take 10 to 20 years to fully develop this new infrastructure and services, which will heavily depend on software and networking technologies.

“This will naturally create a number of opportunities for computer scientists/architects and software developers,” he said. “In fact, many of these systems will be increasingly integrated into data networking and communications infrastructure.”

IT overlay on existing system

Utility industry experts describe smart grids as a new IT infrastructure that will overlay the existing system of wires and switches that transport electricity from power sources to customers. Smart grids will be able to reach individual houses and commercial and industrial facilities via smart meters and software, extending from these components to devices and appliances installed within the customer premises.

Components, sensors, and equipment installed within the utility system will be connected as well. Because of this depth and breadth of connectivity, a typical utility-scale network can have millions of nodes, dwarfing, by comparison, an IT system used in a typical enterprise.

Small-scale electricity generation systems called “microgrids,” which can be built by end users or entrepreneurs to generate electricity via alternative energy sources at the facility or neighborhood level, are expected to become another fundamental part of the system.

“The new system will demand the best work ever done by software programmers to control and coordinate both smart microgrids and their interactions with the bulk power system. These new, prolific, high-quality job opportunities will make a significant contribution to our nation’s economy and competitiveness,” wrote Robert Galvin, a smart grid advocate and the former chairman and CEO of Motorola, in the new book, Perfect Power, which he co-authored with Kurt Yeager, the former president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute.

More specifically, these career opportunities will be of direct interest to people who are skilled in or hold positions in IT, automation, control systems, firmware, back-office systems, graphics for visualization, and security technologies, said Ron Hofmann, an independent consultant to the energy industry.

“People with such backgrounds should find tremendous opportunities to perform the same roles in the electric power industry,” he said.

Need for advanced meters

Two pivotal segments of this new industry will be advanced metering infrastructure and automatic meter reading technologies, which will give customers and suppliers tools and software to monitor and manage energy consumption. The Obama Administration has said it wants 40 million homes equipped with advanced meters, and hundreds of companies large and small have already positioned themselves to provide AMI or AMR equipment and services.

Google, for example, is working on the Google PowerMeter, software that consumers can use to monitor the data coming from their smart meters. For the enterprise market, Cisco Systems has just introduced EnergyWise, a new upgrade to its IOS, which enables companies to improve business energy use all the way down to the level of individual IP devices such as phones, laptops, and access points. It is also developing middleware to manage entire building systems, including lights, elevators and heating and cooling equipment.

Complex, large-scale projects

While IT professionals’ practical skills will have immense value in these new businesses, the energy industry is a distinctive field to work in. Aside from the vast scale of the industry, which can make a typical IT project pale by comparison, regulations can often influence the design of a business or system more than economics and technology, and project life cycles can last many years, said Eric Miller, chief solutions officer at Trilliant, a company that provides AMI solutions for utilities and residential, commercial and industrial customers.

Miller said Trilliant is hiring software architects, engineers, coders, and network engineers, among other types of professionals. How would he advise those who might want to contribute to this dynamic new field?

The smart grid industry is a great one to work in, and there will always be work for talented people, he promised. But, he cautioned, people should expect to invest the time needed to learn the industry if they want to be strong performers, he said. “If you do that you’ll be very sought after and always have a place to land,” he said. CN (12 March, 2009)

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