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Our Insights

Looking toward the future: the 2020 PDDC

March 12, 2020

By Kyle Johnson

This year marked the 30th anniversary of POWER’s Power Delivery Design Conference. I assumed going to this conference, it would be marked by lessons from the past due to this milestone year. To my surprise, the history of POWER was not mentioned much; this conference was all about looking forward to the future.

Retirements are coming

The power industry is changing much faster than anyone thought it would just a few decades ago. New technologies are emerging, experienced engineers are retiring, even the grid itself is evolving. One of the panel sessions, entitled “Training the Next Generation,” specifically addressed the issue of the power industry’s aging workforce and the incoming wave of newer engineers. The room was packed with people lining up against the back wall to see what these industry experts had to say about it.

“20% of our workforce is eligible to retire today, 34% of our workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years,” said Doug Dockter of Idaho Power. When asked about who was replacing these experienced engineers, he said, “Six of eight Area Technician Leaders have been in their jobs for less than two years, and almost half of our construction technicians have worked at our company for fewer than two years.”

Knowledge gap

Most of us are already well aware of the concerns. Thirty-plus years ago, getting an engineering degree was common. Then there was a large gap until recently, when becoming an engineer again became an exciting field for young people to join due to advancements in technology. After the session, I caught up with one of the panelists, Norman Nakagawa of Hawaiian Electric, and asked him why he thought that even now, when engineering is becoming popular again, it is difficult to get young people interested in the power industry.

“It’s difficult to find universities to push students to be interested in power,” he said. “Universities tend to push students to the classes for which there is funding.” We agreed that today’s generation seemed to be more interested in sexier fields of study like computer science than the power industry.

An evolving industry

Perhaps the solution to having younger engineers become interested in the power industry is the evolving nature of the industry itself. As the nation pushes toward clean energy, more electric vehicles will hit the roads, including fleets of industrial vehicles across the country, another major topic of conversation at PDDC. As the grid changes more and more on the distribution side, even computer science majors are finding themselves needed in the power industry.

With the introduction of new concepts like ADMS (Advanced Distribution Management System) and DERMS (Distributed Energy Resource Management System), the grid is becoming more complex and dynamic than it has ever been before. This added complexity shakes the old idea that has been taught the past several decades that what we do is somehow “boring.” As POWER’s own Dave Leslie put it, “P&Q is still P&Q, but how we control it has changed.”

The power industry has evolved in such a way that in order to keep up, POWER needs to stay always looking toward the future. This year’s PDDC has shown that it doesn’t matter if you are a small cooperative from Louisiana, or a major tech company like Google, for the grid to meet demand and maintain American values, industry leaders across a broad spectrum of companies will play a role. Our future is being decided now, and POWER is playing a crucial role in making those decisions.

Kyle Johnson is a project engineer for our SCADA and Analytical Services business unit. He is located in our Orlando office.