The eventual transformation of the current U.S. electrical infrastructure to a “smart grid” is a longstanding goal of both the public and private sectors, due to a wide range of benefits it could unlock in service reliability, security, environmental preservation and economic growth. The current electrical grid is vast and aging, making it prime time for such a revitalization.
The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that it currently supports 600,000 miles of transmission lines, with a generating capacity of over 1 million megawatts. At that scale, it inevitably employs a large amount of personnel and intersects with every sector of the economy.
Defining the smart grid
But what exactly makes a smart grid “smart”? A paper prepared for the National Energy Technology Laboratory outlined its seven essential characteristics:
- Heightened consumer interaction: Instruments such as programmable communicating thermostats and building energy management systems give electrical customers more power in controlling the costs and environmental impact of electricity consumption.
- Flexible options for storage and generation: A smart grid should be capable of drawing upon multiple sources of electricity, including newer options for clean power depending on the situation.
- Ability to enable new products and services: By reducing transmission congestion and broadening access for electric consumers and producers, the smart grid should create more opportunities for innovations like green technologies and electric vehicles.
- Optimization for digital systems: Powering enormous new infrastructure such as the Internet of Things will require a grid that is scalable, intuitive to use and secure – much like the internet itself, under ideal conditions.
- High utilization and efficiency: A smart grid should be easier to maintain than a standard one, due to better outage reporting, more extensive automation and utilization of more varied power sources.
- Adaptability and self-healing: It should conduct constant self-assessments to identify anomalies and potential problems, and be capable of adjusting.
- Resiliency: Electrical grids are common targets of cyberattacks, and are frequently affected by natural disasters. Smart grids must be hardened against such events, so that they can minimize downtime even under challenging circumstances.
The common thread that runs through all seven of these characteristics is two-way communications technology, which allows an electrical grid to operate in a similar manner to an Internet Protocol network (i.e. via computer-based remote control and automation). Together, such features make smart grid technology a logical investment for today’s utilities, government agencies, construction companies and consumers. Power and smart grid engineers are on the front lines of the ongoing electrical grid revolution, since they ensure proper implementation of these essential capabilities and components.
Power and smart grid engineering at a glance
Electrical engineers oversee the fundamental design, development, testing and maintenance of grid infrastructure. In smart grids, they are especially focused on power generation and supply.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 315,900 electrical and electronics engineers in the country in 2014. The outlook for employment varies significantly by industry; with many industries that traditionally employed electrical engineers declining, the smart grid sector is not one of them.
The Department of Energy estimated that from 1982 to 2013, peak demand for electricity outpaced growth in power transmission capacity by an average of 25 percent per year. With these numbers there should be plenty of room for growth across the numerous professions, including ones for engineers that contribute to smart grids designed in response to this surging demand.
The BLS has identified three main categories of architecture and engineering employment within smart grids:
- Electrical engineers: 2016 median wage of $96,270.
- Electronics engineers, excluding computer: 2016 median wage of $99,210.
- Electrical and electronics engineering technicians: 2016 median wage of $62,190.
What do these workers do to bring the smart grid to life? Here are a few of the major responsibilities they usually take on:
1. Designing architectures for power generation and storage
Engineers might improve the grid’s ability to meet demand by making it more responsive to fluctuations in usage. Plus, they will likely focus on the integration of renewable power sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, as well as mechanisms for transmitting and storing their energy. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has estimated that 60 percent of all new capacity added to the U.S. grid in 2016 was from wind and solar.
2. Creating applications and control systems
Electronics engineers often work on applications that monitor electricity usage at specific locations. This monitoring may also be applied to specific power sources and within the management of entire power plants. The harsh operating environments and strict operations in these settings requires careful attention to how different pieces of infrastructure, from industrial Ethernet networks to end user software, interact with each other.
3. Crafting electrical and electronic equipment
Numerous devices make the smart grid possible. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is a prime example. AMI encompasses networked electricity meters that communicate at short intervals with the utility company’s centralized systems. The EIA has revealed that there were 64.7 million AMI installations through 2015. Technicians typically design such equipment and evaluate it for defects and adjustments before it is implemented into a smart grid.
Start your career as a power and smart grid engineer today
A master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Riverside explores the breadth and depth of knowledge that you may need to become a successful smart grid engineer. Visit our main electrical engineering program page for more information on your options.