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4 Steps to Address Knowledge Gaps at Electric Utilities

Electric utilities face a host of challenges as climate change worsens, distributed renewable energy sources expand, and electric vehicles become commonplace. These challenges are likely to be worsened because electric utilities frequently fill knowledge gaps with outdated, experiential knowledge gained on the job.


Some specific experiential, on-the-job learning is critical for electric utility professionals; however, it can also be a detriment to electric utilities. When on-the-job training relies on outdated models and practices, there is a risk that the industry will struggle to advance to the next generation.


To address knowledge gaps, electric utilities should implement four steps:

  1. Review historic energy systems.

  2. Learn from other electric utilities.

  3. Learn from other industries.

  4. Implement professional development programs.

We’ll dive into each of these steps later in this post. First, let’s take a closer look at how on-the-job training can preserve knowledge gaps at electric utilities.


On-the-Job Training Preserves Knowledge Gaps


On-the-job training is not inherently bad and is necessary for certain aspects of many positions within electric utilities. Linemen, for example, learn essential skills from on-the-job training. In other areas, on-the-job training supplements skills acquired in classroom settings. However, on-the-job training becomes an issue when it is outdated and preserves knowledge gaps.


Consider technical advisors in energy control centers, who use load flow models to evaluate outages and estimate energy flow across transmission facilities. Every technical advisor has a solid understanding of electric engineering theory, specifically the basics of motor design, which is then supplemented by on-the-job training. However, most of the time, this on-the-job training focuses on energy sources and load representations that were developed in the 1960s.


Protective relay engineers also experience a knowledge gap based on their reliance on outdated on-the-job training. Every protective relay engineer has a solid understanding of how to use short circuit models while determining settings. However, protective relay engineers focus on representations that were developed when energy was produced by large, remote energy production facilities. As the clean energy transition continues to unfold, renewable energy will be produced at more distributed locations throughout the grid, such as rooftop solar panels.


Another example is system planners, who use transmission and distribution system models to plan future enhancements. Most planners have a solid understanding of electric engineering theory that is supplemented by on-the-job training. However, they are not subject matter experts in all areas necessary for planning the next generation electric energy system. Changes to energy production facilities, new customer loads, and modern components need to be evaluated by mechanical engineers, material scientists, and other subject matter experts with expertise beyond basic electric system operation.


Fill Knowledge Gaps in Four Steps


Electric utilities must work to fill the knowledge gaps outlined above, and others that exist throughout the industry, so that they are prepared for the next generation electric energy system. To do so, electric utilities can implement the following strategies.


1. Review Historic Energy Systems


Every technical advisor and system planner needs to understand compromises that were implemented during the design and operation of first-generation electric systems.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Lehigh Navigation Coal Company established a 25 Hertz electrical system in northeastern Pennsylvania to pump water from coal mines in Lansford and to power steel mills in Bethlehem. Today, this system would be referred to as a microgrid.


Because the electric system and customer loads were so intertwined, coal companies installed both induction and synchronous motors. Synchronous motors were installed for voltage and power factor optimization. Understanding the concerns of first generation energy system developers and considering microgrids with similar design features will benefit electric utilities as the fallout from climate change continues to worsen.


2. Learn from Other Electric Utilities


A wide area blackout on August 9, 2019, affected over 1 million customers in England and Wales. During a double contingency event, frequency dropped to less than 47 hertz and failed to recover before underfrequency relays actuated at energy production facilities. Note, underfrequency relaying is utilized to trip large steam turbine generators before blades in steam turbines are damaged.


It is essential that technical advisors and protective relay engineers understand the considerations that led to the implementation of underfrequency relaying schemes. This should lead to the development of power factor biased undervoltage relaying schemes that will be needed as distributed renewable energy sources become commonplace.


3. Learn from Other Industries


The nuclear industry offers a variety of lessons learned for electric utilities. A fire at Browns Ferry nuclear power plant on March 22, 1975, revealed the need to require physical separation of redundant protective schemes. The nuclear power industry learned from their misstep and acted appropriately.


Technical advisors and protective relay engineers would benefit from studying this and other significant events in the nuclear power industry, and updating standards and regulations after a significant event occurs. By studying the Browns Ferry fire, technical advisors and protective relay engineers can better understand why nuclear regulators implemented requirements for the physical separation of redundant protective schemes.


Studying other significant events and the subsequent changes to nuclear industry standards and regulations would prove similarly informative to electric utility professionals.


4. Implement Professional Development Programs


Electric utilities offer job specific skills training. They need to offer industry specific knowledge programs with a goal of providing employees a solid foundation that enables next generation thinking.


On approach to professional development is to offer exchange programs with international electric utilities. For example, in the 1990s, my family hosted six Chugoku Electric Power Company employees as they worked at Pennsylvania Power & Light Company as exchange employees. The goal of this program was for Chugoku employees to gain a different perspective on industry knowledge while working in the United States. My most lasting memory was the time we devoted to working together to develop PowerPoint presentations for them to share upon returning to Japan. A similar program sending American electric utility professional abroad would help electric utilities gain unique perspectives.


Another option is to provide continuing education opportunities. Prescient offers a variety of courses in next generation power system concepts through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Continuing Education. These courses can be tailored to a specific electric utility, and scheduled as needed or on a recurring basis. Coursework can be applied to continuing education credits or towards an Electrical Engineering Certificate.


Prepare for the Future by Filling Knowledge Gaps


Knowledge gaps, which occur in every industry, can be filled by learning from the past, studying lessons learned in other industries, and participating in continuing education courses. By implementing these strategies, electric utility professionals can begin to modernize on-the-job training so that the knowledge gaps it once led to no longer exist.


Ready to schedule a continuing education course for your utility? Contact us! Or check out our blog for more innovative management practices and next generation concepts for electric utilities.

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