The US needs more grid engineers to implement Biden’s plan (1 of 2)

US President Biden’s plan to implement more infrastructure projects in this country is a step in the right direction. But this infrastructure plan is not just roads and bridges. This infrastructure plan includes dollars for high voltage transmission projects needed to integrate more renewable projects, which are needed to implement state and public policy goals.

Hiring engineers via the H1B process would address the immediate need for high voltage engineers. In part 1 of this blog series, I will focus on transmission engineers. In part 2, the need for additional market systems and distribution planning engineers will be addressed.

Specific focus on transmission in Biden’s Plan

There is a focus on transmission projects in the Biden plan. The plan allocates $100 billion for transmission project infrastructure improvements. However, it is not clear if $100 billion alone would suffice. It will take at least $25 billion to revamp the MISO transmission system, according to an estimate. This $25 billion-$100 billion may involve the actual construction of transmission projects in this country.

There hasn’t been much focus yet on the transmission planning engineers needed to model the system and run detailed load flow studies to make the business case for these projects. At the regional transmission organizations (RTO), transmission planning engineers first identify a need on the transmission system and then seek solutions to address that identified need via the stakeholder process. All this takes time.

The RTO independent board of directors approves transmission projects. The construction process starts after the individual state Public Utility Commission (PUC) approves a new transmission line. Transmission projects, especially large voltage 345-kV and above, take at least 10 years from conceptual stage to actual construction. Hence the need for more engineers today to put together a business case on modeling the need for high voltage transmission projects.

H1B Process to hire international students legally

An H1B process is the an excellent way for organizations to hire electrical engineers. The H1B process binds a job description to a particular location at a particular company and provides a path for legal immigration. It is important for the industry not to abuse the legal immigration process and some bad actors in IT around the H1B process have given a bad name to this type of legal immigration. This bad name is why some political leaders and business leaders are unwilling to hire more H1B engineers.

It is doubtful how much legal immigration is on the minds of political leaders who are concerned about illegal immigration in this country. But if legal immigration, especially an H1B process to hire more engineers, is not given importance, we may soon have a lack of talent in this country. And that lack of engineers means it might take a while to train new engineers when needed to run power flow studies.

It takes 3 years to train engineers

It is a myth that if an engineer performs a project, they know how the power system model works. Transmission planning engineers need experience with multiple projects to get into the details behind how the transmission planning model works. In some cases, with production cost models such as Hitachi ABB PROMOD, it takes three years for an engineer to understand all the switches in the production cost engine of PROMOD.

Other production cost tools such as PowerWorld also have similar learning curves. The market is also ripe with new commercial production cost tools such as Energy Exemplar’s PLEXOS. Hence it takes a couple of years at least for the engineer to learn how the model works and be productive. It is very tough for an engineer to model assumptions, communicate to the stakeholders, and write reports simultaneously. Hence the industry should be patient in getting engineers up to speed on some of these models.

Internships should be intentional

It also makes sense for universities to be tied more closely to RTOs and the transmission owners, including renewable project developers. And one way to get that real-world experience without leaving the university is an internship at these organizations. Iowa State University’s Dr. James McCalley has successfully placed his students at Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).

Internships at commercial organizations should be a requirement at universities so that students graduate with real-world experience. Only then would the industry have confidence in students that they can be productive right from day one. Today this relationship only exists in some situations where the university professors have business relationships with the industry via national lab grants or, in some cases, based on their experience. Not all universities have full-fledged internship programs with electric utilities and renewable project developers.

We also need the industry professionals to take some time to train the interns. Interns should be involved in day-to-day transmission planning and distribution planning work. Internship pay should also be looked at by the sponsoring organizations.

Expose undergraduate and graduate students to 50,000 bus models

For the most part, undergraduate students and graduate students in US universities learn power system fundamentals using an IEEE 115 bus system. In some cases, it makes sense to learn how power flow works by hand when solving the three bus system. However, the RTO’s and other transmission owners are running a 50,000 transmission bus system. Hence we need undergraduate and graduate students actually to get their hands on the 50,000 bus system.

As a result, the industry can have qualified engineers join the workforce who are productive right from the first day of their employment. This requirement means software vendors should provide a commercial version, not an academic version, to the universities. It is also important for RTOs and other transmission owners to provide their models under confidentiality to students and professors.

The industry is not served well if transmission owners and RTO’s keep the power system model confidential. This 50,000 bus system and the student’s experience in the universities are vital to understanding the grid injection studies and executing steady-state and dynamic system stability studies. As we see at PJM, many facility studies are held up in the backlog process. These facility studies are complicated. It takes more than three years for short circuit system stability studies to be run by fresh engineers without experienced engineers looking over their shoulders.

Conclusion

Transmission projects do not happen overnight. The industry needs to understand that roads and bridges and airports and seaports are not the only focus for implementing Biden’s plan. We need high voltage transmission projects. This need means we need high voltage transmission engineers to model these projects—now is the time to hire more power systems engineers at universities and colleges in undergraduate and graduate programs.

In the next part of this blog, we will explore the need for market systems and distribution planning engineers.

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Rao Konidena of Rakon Energy LLC is an independent consultant focused on providing policy and testimony support, business development, and training in wholesale energy markets. Rao likes helping solar and storage developers and consumer and environmental advocate clients. Most recently, Rao was with Midcontinent ISO (MISO) as Principal Advisor for Policy Studies, working on energy storage and distributed energy resources. At MISO, Rao worked in management and non-management roles around resource adequacy, economic planning, business management, and policy functions. Rao volunteers as an engineering mentor for middle school students participating in the Future City competition. Rao is Co-President of the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce – Minnesota (FACC-MN), and on the Board of Ever Green Energy and Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA).

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