Smart Grid Rollout Promises IT Job Growth

By Doug Bartholomew

As the nation’s utilities begin to gird for an estimated $200 billion rollout of new "smart grid" technologies – in part funded by more than $16 billion in federal incentives – nearly 300,000 new positions are expected to be created over the next four years. In IT, the smart grid boom is likely to spawn jobs in networking, software development, and IT security. 

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Generally viewed as a digital communications network for information-sharing between consumers and utilities, the smart grid also will connect utilities with distributed generation resources such as rooftop solar panels and storage batteries. A key piece of the smart grid will be the installation of hundreds of millions of smart meters designed to provide homeowners and businesses with detailed information on power usage, while enabling utilities to read meters remotely. Of the 2.5 billion electric meters worldwide, only 8 percent have any kind of automation. 

Also, the smart grid will monitor power usage by an influx of green devices such as electric cars. One goal is to balance loads over time to avoid network overloads that can cause power outages. 

Among the utilities that have started building out the smart grid, Pacific Gas & Electric has already begun installing smart meters in California’s Central Valley. Duke Energy, which has tested smart grid devices in the Carolinas and Cincinnati, plans a full-scale rollout beginning in 2010 in Ohio followed by Indiana, the Carolinas and Kentucky.  

What the Jobs Are 

Among the IT-related jobs needed to staff the smart grid rollout will be technology consultants and systems integrators, software system providers, communications system services professionals, and contractors who’ll assist utilities with developing new systems for power pricing, usage, and storage.  

"The rollout of millions of smart meters will dramatically increase the amount of data the utility will receive on customer energy usage," says a spokesman at PG&E in San Francisco. "As we develop more sophisticated pricing systems, we’ll create an IT challenge that will almost certainly lead to employment of IT professionals, as well as jobs at the vendor companies that supply utilities with smart grid equipment." At the same time, utilities will eliminate most, if not all, of the traditional meter reading jobs. 

New ventures will be created to respond to the needs and opportunities fostered by the smart grid. "Multiple products and cottage industries will emerge in relation to the broader adoption of automation and communications technologies by the utility industry," states an online report from KEMA, a Burlington, Mass., technology and management consulting firm specializing in the energy and utility industries.  

KEMA estimates the smart grid rollout will bring 280,000 new jobs, plus an additional 140,000 jobs among smart grid suppliers. Some of the utility jobs created will be software architects who can develop smart grid applications.  

For example, at utilities using smart meters with ColdFire microcontrollers from Freescale Semiconductor, professionals will be needed to develop new smart meter applications using the Freescale CodeWarrior Development Studio for Microcontrollers.  

Handy Background 

IT professionals interested in snagging a smart grid job at a utility should be familiar with the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) communications standard widely accepted by many in the industry. Likewise, the AMI (advanced metering interface), is an emerging specification for smart meters capable of responding to requests from utilities to, say, shut down smart appliances in homes to prevent an overload.   

Another area where IT professionals will be needed is network security. Professionals there will ensure the smart grid and its applications are hacker-resistant and secure against attack from intruders. To demonstrate the threat, a consultant at a recent hacker conference showed how a malware was designed to propagate from meter to meter, potentially enabling hackers to shut down devices across a utility network.   

See a listing of smart grid jobs on Dice here.

Doug Bartholomew is a business and technology writer based in California’s Bay area.

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