We need more grid engineers to implement Biden’s plan (Part 2 of 2)

Hiring engineers via the H1B immigration process would make implementing Biden’s infrastructure plan more efficient. In part 1, we focused on the need for transmission planning engineers. In part 2, the focus is on the need for additional market systems and distribution planning engineers.

Engineers should have the flexibility to move within an organization

Engineers who are starting in their jobs need a clear career trajectory. For example, if hired first in interconnection planning, an electrical engineer can spend three years in that position. Later they can join the transmission planning department to put the skills they have gained by modeling interconnection requests because the skills to study steady-state and dynamic stability models in planning are relatable to interconnection planning.

At electric utility companies with both transmission planning and distribution planning, engineers can move from one department to another without needing a new H1B process. An H1B process hooks the engineer to the specific employer and at a specific location and a specific job.

Remove that specific job requirement if we want more engineers hired within the same company at the same location. If a utility company is spending more than $10,000 to hire an engineer on an H1B process, it makes sense from a business case perspective to show a career path for more than three years.

Another need – Market systems engineers

Engineers are also needed to implement market systems in the organized wholesale energy markets administered by RTOs. Very few engineers can code and understand the complex algorithms inside the market engine that solves every four seconds in the control room.

As we integrate more distributed energy resources on the grid, RTOs like MISO are making a case that market systems engines might slow down (take more than 4 seconds to solve) if we connect more distributed resources to the transmission grid. However, very few market systems engineers can get under the market engine hood to understand the issue. This situation happened when MISO asked FERC to extend the implementation deadline for FERC order 841 on electric storage resources. There are very few market system engineers who can challenge MISO on their extension request at FERC. However, without this expertise, energy storage developers find it hard to challenge MISO.

Focusing on regulatory policy alone would not get the job done

Today there is much focus on regulatory policy. While there is nothing wrong with so many engineers and policy professionals focusing on what we need in the future, the regulators also need to understand that we need engineers to execute or implement these renewable projects to meet carbon-free goals.

Policy professionals are more tuned towards communication and messaging. They can write in simple terms a one-pager that become policy briefs for state and federal regulators. We need these policy professionals to demystify the complex topics associated with wholesale energy markets.

Distribution planning concepts are even more complicated than wholesale energy market concepts. Public utility commissions are already seeing the need for more engineers. It is not good for the electric utility industry if a PUC trains an engineer and they leave for a higher salary at a utility company or a renewable project developer.

We need these engineers to stay within a company for at least three years to understand all the complexities of a certain job. That three-year duration can only come if the PUC hires international professionals via the H1B legal immigration process. And for that to happen, the PUC should not be responsible for higher immigration fees.

Charge immigration fees for hiring engineering professionals according to the revenue of the hiring company. For example, Google can afford $12,000 to $20,000 for a green card. However, don’t ask a PUC to pay those high immigration fees to hire an engineer.

This engineer shortage is not a renewable project developer problem alone

It would be a mistake to think renewable project developers alone should find more grid injection engineers. Renewable project developers, transmission owners, regional transmission organizations, electric utility companies all share the need for additional grid injection engineers in the next three to five years.

The reality is that grid injection engineers at the RTOs are in high demand. Major renewable project developers seek them because these engineers understand the interconnection queue rules. Even though transmission owners at PJM have approved contractors list, those approved contractors may not have enough engineers to keep up with the volume of PJM interconnection queue projects. Hence this problem is not unique to renewable project developers. It takes a village to hire these grid injection engineers and retain them at least for a couple of years at each organization.

The industry is not served well if fresh graduates move from company to company every year. We need these engineers to stay at a company for at least three years because it takes that much time to model a transmission or distribution system.

We have barely scratched the surface of integrated distribution planning

The electric utility industry might see more distributed energy resources interconnect to the transmission grid. Once that happens, there would be a long line in the interconnection queue for distributed resources at the RTOs. We need distribution planning engineers to interconnect distributed resources to the transmission grid, not transmission planning engineers.

Distribution planning models are different than transmission planning models. Very few distribution planning engineers are well versed in transmission planning. Similarly, few transmission planning engineers can successfully model distribution planning.

Traditionally transmission planning and distribution planning has been done in silos. However, with more distributed energy resource interest, especially with FERC order 2222, we can expect more distributed energy resources to connect to the transmission grid. Hence we need more engineers to integrate distribution planning and transmission planning.

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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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