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New innovation: SDG&E pairs technology + workforce

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine November/December 2009

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JIM AVERY, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF POWER supply for San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), has a story to tell about smart grid technology and workforce education. This pairing has really taken off at his utility and throughout the area.

"The story is really about the power industry. More will happen in our industry in the next 10 years than has happened over the past hundred years. Now we have smart grid and there's the potential for all sorts of change-it tells us about outages, is capable of self healing and requires no human intervention," Avery said.

SDG&E's smart grid activities begin with its smart meter program, which started with a mass rollout in March and will see deployment to 90 percent of customers by the end of 2010 and to all 1.4 million customers by the end of 2011. The utility is also updating its systems and platforms to accommodate changes needed for a smarter grid, and has completed a stimulus funding application for an end-to-end smart grid demonstration project. "Other utilities have applied for stimulus funding with a narrower focus on the individual components of smart grid," said Avery. "Our demonstration project is different in that it will range from smart appliances all the way to generation, covering the entire spectrum of smart grid."

SDG&E has a solid track record for innovation. "We've gone from zero to 10 percent renewables in the past five years, and will add another 5 percent in the near future," Avery said.

On the topic of staffing issues and smart grid, Avery said his utility is experiencing evolutionary change. "We're finding the new generation of our staff is different. We harness their talents with an aggressive program to bring in college interns. We want to capture them early on, when they are just learning about technology, by bringing them in at all stages of their undergraduate and graduate education. We offer employment to 75 percent of our interns and all of them have accepted a job when it was offered. This is extraordinary and it is happening because the students recognize this is a company willing to embrace change."

SDG&E's internal Operational Excellence program rolls out staff training to support the technology. "We are finding the young students to be great leaders in adopting new technology, our best and brightest. We try to empower the organization within its organizational structure. This works because we empower the staff to do their jobs, giving them a voice," Avery said.

Working with young staff is particularly helpful in the area of security. "These employees have been raised on digital technology and they are adept at finding flaws in systems and repairing them. We also partner with companies that provide military security in order to have access to their experience and state-of-the-art technology," he said.

The pilot project developed for SDG&E's stimulus package application includes a coalition of 25 organizations and the expected big smart grid vendors, but draws in International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 465, the San Diego Workforce Partnership and CleanTECH San Diego. "Our union understands that the future of the industry is technology. They want to be part of this future and are actively involved in training in our area. They are responsive to our high growth in renewables and our commitment to 33 percent renewable generation by 2020. The utility involves the union in our smart grid and green initiatives, and the union sees that these changes will create lots of jobs," Avery said.

San Diego is rich in technology, which helps with staffing issues, and the utility has been able to demonstrate that employing new technology benefits its customers. San Diego has been rated as having the most reliable power in the West.

SDG&E is also involved in the expansion of electric vehicle technology. "Electric cars will be adopted rapidly and we are preparing for this surge. If customers plug their cars into their house power, we could see a 50 to 75 percent increase in residential usage. We are developing new technologies so customers can charge their cars at the mall or at home or anywhere else and have those charges all appear on one electric bill. We also see an opportunity to manage loads on charging stations and integrate them with fluctuating supply from renewables," he said.

The San Diego Workforce Partnership and CleanTECH San Diego are part of the coalition included in SDG&E's stimulus proposal. The Partnership will aim its constituencies toward the next generation of smart grid and clean technology jobs, and identify technology needs and proceed immediately to training to fill those needs. CleanTECH will provide outreach to enable new products, services and markets to fuel the local economy. The stimulus proposal team also includes three local universities, which want to use the pilot project to provide real-world experience to their students as well as new training opportunities.

San Diego has some of the lowest residential energy usage of any customer base in the nation. One of the area's biggest technology growth sectors is solar power. The labor unions are training electricians in solar installations. "Our goal is to sow the seeds for renewable technology to germinate," Avery said.

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