Skilling the new energy world

Skilling the new energy world
Anthea Middleton

With a changing industry comes a changing workforce. ES&D talks to Energy Skills Queensland workforce planning manager Anthea Middleton about one of the most critical questions facing the energy industry: what skills do we need today to run the smart cities of tomorrow, and how can industry work together to identify and address the gaps?

A convergence of trends are revolutionising the national electricity supply industry. With the announcement of Elon Musk’s Tesla battery gamechanger, the Australian Energy Regulator’s (AER’s) final determination of distribution and transmission costs, declining overall electricity use, and consumer demand for data, pressure on industry and government to reconfigure the energy system is at an all-time high.

Despite questions surrounding how electricity will be produced, distributed and consumed, to date, there has been limited research detailing workforce changes and skilling implications. This is where Anthea Middleton comes in. As the workforce planning manger for Energy Skills Queensland (ESQ) – one of the country’s leading skills bodies steering energy industry and government engagement on education and training, skills development and labour market issues – Anthea wants to help industry plan and develop its most important asset; its people.

Her research into the major workforce impacts of a changing electricity industry is only a first look. Nonetheless, it clearly identifies workforce groups that will be impacted by the ‘new energy world’ – namely by the uptake of smarter grids – and the new roles that will shape tomorrow’s diverse energy landscape.

“A reliable supply of electricity drives the entire Australian economy. The nation has prospered from a highly skilled electricity industry, which provides this service via a network spanning power generation, transmission, distribution and retailer,” Anthea says.

“Emerging trends that are fundamentally changing how this industry and the wider electricity market operates are widely understood by industry. What is less well-known is how they could reshape core elements of the electricity industry workforce in the coming five-10 years.

“It also remains unclear how other professions working closely with the industry, such as electrical contractors, may be impacted as new technologies and energy services are introduced.”

Anthea’s discussion paper on the future skilling implications of the smart grid might only touch the surface of the issue, but it does allow ESQ to play a central role in co-ordinating informed feedback, commentary and deeper industry involvement to generate a whole-of-industry action plan. It’s an important first look, because it starts the types of conversation needed to fill a critical gap in current thinking about changes in the Australian electricity industry.

“Most preceding work in this area has focused on emerging market trends and new technologies, without consideration for the expected skills needs. This may be a crucial oversight,” Anthea says.

“Successful industry change depends on skilled labour, and a correct assessment of the workforce implications of impending change can help ensure a properly skilled industry is available when needed.”

ES&D: What are the converging trends you’ve identified as most critical in reshaping the national electrical supply industry? 

Anthea: The trends that are driving change globally across a number of sectors relate to technology. Increasingly affordable solar photovoltaic (PV) that people can put on their homes or that can be used for commercial residences – and the increased capacity those solar panels have – is causing massive waves in the industry. Developments in battery technology, such as battery storage and battery capabilities, are increasing rapidly to a point where we’ve got much smaller batteries that are more powerful and last far longer; that’s been a fundamental change for the energy industry worldwide.

Add to this smart meters that can connect to any device in a home and we’ve heralded in a new digital age; one where every device can be connected to a single system that can be viewed by the user, often in real time. This kind of technology allows the consumer to make choices around how and when they use electricity, and that’s changing the entire energy paradigm on which the industry has historically based itself.

On a national level, on top of these technological changes, we’ve also got a raft of regulatory reform to deal with. Some states already have a much more dynamic tariff system in place, with peak pricing and flexibility of choice for users. Queensland, of course, doesn’t yet have this level of flexibility. We’ve mainly got the old system where someone comes out, reads the meter and tells us how much electricity usage we’ve amassed during the quarter. However, reform is saying the end-user needs to have more power and choice. These two elements combined – power and choice – will move us towards a system that is much more dynamic. It’s a fantastic balance because everyone wins. The end-user wins because their bill is lower, and the electricity supply companies win because they don’t have to manage peak demand in such an inefficient way.

Given the long lead times and highly skilled nature of the electricity workforce, combined with the importance of a reliable power supply to the national economy, understanding the skills needs required to capitalise on these trends is of extremely high significance for the electricity industry, its stakeholders, and state and federal governments.

Many countries are experiencing similar changes. What can we learn about changing workforce needs from electrical networks overseas?

There is a lot to take from overseas workforces, and we spent quite a bit of time researching this area. Entire cities have rolled out smart grids, and others are what we term ‘smart cities’. From the start, all research in this area has clearly stated one of the biggest challenges faced when rolling out a smart city is workforce skill availability.

We’ve got new technologies; systems that are interacting in advanced and different ways, and services that are being provided or that need to be provided that haven’t existed before. This demands a range of skills needs. One of the main messages I want to get through to the top tier of the energy industry – and I’m sure they think about it already – is, ‘look at your own workforce needs and let’s have an industry wide deep dive into what workforce requirements will look like in the near future’. There are many lessons to learn from international activity, and we need to engage in dialogue with the various sectors – here and overseas – to see how we will relate with each other in new ways. This is how industry can work together, and with ESQ, to identify skills needs and plan for their development.

Why is the transition to a ‘smart grid’ considered the overarching driver of workforce and skilling changes? And, what jobs will be the most deeply impacted? 

Moving to a smarter grid is an ongoing and complex process that also enables a diverse range of intelligent technologies, renewable systems, services, markets and new products to enter the traditional electricity market. It is due to this enabling role and the level of technological integration required that this area is expected to have such a wide impact on skill requirements.

The impact of smarter grids on skills and workforce requirements is particularly well documented in the US, where smart grid implementation is more advanced and has received substantial national funding and government commitment. The three workforce groups commonly proposed as being the most directly are distribution network operators; supply chain organisations operating in areas such as telecommunications overlays or software integration; and electrical contractors providing new ‘smart’ services to domestic, commercial and industrial markets.

Distribution network operation skill clusters and example occupations likely to be impacted can be broken down into five further categories: electrical (electrical distribution trades workers, electricians, electro-technology and telecommunications trades workers, and technicians); engineering (power systems engineers, electrical engineers, telecommunications engineers, and technicians); information and communication technology (ICT) (ICT security specialists, software and applications programmers, and ICT managers); data analytics (database administrators, data scientists, database developers/architects, and ‘big’ data analysts); and customer services (call or contact centre workers, customer services managers, advertising, public relations and sales managers, and ‘smart’ electricity services broker).

The ability to convert raw data into useful information for decision-making is a hot topic for the industry. Just how crucial will data analysts be in tomorrow’s energy landscape? 

Data analytics is going to be huge. Data analysts will be the new stock analysts – they will need to know where the fluctuations in usage are and why it’s occurring. They will need to watch all the grids to know where the activity is, so if you’ve got pockets of locations that have different demand needs, the analysts can understand why this is happening and what needs to be done.

Essentially, it’s a job that will understand the root cause of power usage. While we can assume across most grids there will be peak usage between 5-9pm – when users come home from work and cook dinner, do the washing and watch a bit of telly – there might be other grids that are primarily industrial. It may be cheaper for a factory to shut down for two days in a heat wave because the revenue from manufacturing doesn’t compare well with the cost of electricity. This is the type of decision a data analyst could provide assistance with.

We’re looking at the introduction of database and systems administrators, data scientists, database developers/architects and ‘big’ data analysts into the sector in a big way. Of course, they will need the skills and expertise required to plan, integrate, operate, maintain and leverage business insights from ‘big data’ management systems. An exponential amount of digital information may define the future operating environment, and will require skills and personnel not yet present in the sector. There will be a heavy overlap with ICT skills.

At some stage, data analytics will become automated. But in its infancy, we need people with big data skills to write the algorithms to understand data flow and the impact they have on the organisations supplying the electricity as well as the end the end user.

Where are holes likely to appear in the energy sector’s workforce if we don’t quickly address this need for new skills and workforce capabilities? 

Skills shortages may occur across science, technology, engineering and mathematics roles in engineering, ICT and data analytics. This is particularly likely as the demand for new expertise and roles in these areas increase.

Problematically, these skill areas and many associated occupations, are either already in shortage in the wider Australian economy, or have historically been faced with recruitment difficulties. Electrical engineers, including power systems engineers, have been in shortage for eight of the 10 years to 2013. For ICT, software engineers are also considered to be difficult to recruit across the entire economy. Adding to this, a lack of technical expertise in data analytics has also recently been identified across Australian organisations.

When conducting our research, claims smart grid skills shortages were either already occurring or seen as a threat to successful industry change in the future were common. For example, a quarter of utility executives from around the world identified a lack of skills as a barrier to a more intelligent electricity market. Others in the US have postposed deployment of smart technologies and infrastructure for the same reason.

This is not new news. A skills shortage has been a concern for the industry for some time. In fact, an early contributing factor to CSIRO’s Big Failure scenario (2009) for a national smart grid was identified as a lack of the necessary workforce and skills. Smart grid engineering skills shortages have also been identified by the Australian Energy Research Institute (AERI), which has developed professional courses with industry to begin addressing these concerns.

Traditional training for job roles will need to change. But can we build a robust image of the future workforce when we can’t be certain of what the energy landscape will look like? 

How do we educate engineers going into university power system courses so they learn about the new world, not the old world? This is the million-dollar question. The research I’ve been involved with certainly doesn’t attempt to answer this question, but it does identify a need for a whole-of-industry action plan. Within this there are useful mechanisms we can use, whether it’s scenario planning, or analysing existing smart cities, or doing much deeper case studies into the skills that are needed. There are a number of ways we can eliminate the unknowns in our future, and the most important thing to do is to get the ball rolling. We can smooth out the bumps as we go.

What needs to happen now is representation from all aspects of the energy industry, with people willing to contribute on a more detailed level about what the impact will be for their business. To the CEOs, managers and engineers reading this, I say, “share the work you’ve already done, not only with the industry, but also with the training and education sector so we can align our plans with how new workers are trained”.

Something very tangible we can do to address a looming skills shortage is to increase participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian high schools, universities and vocational education institutions. STEM skills are considered essential to the growing use and impact of information and communication technologies – like the smart gird – on Australian industries. A declining enrolment in STEM-based disciplines and training could lead to skills shortages in future for a more technologically integrated electricity supply industry. Specifically, these STEM skills are considered essential to many of the distribution operator workforce occupations likely to be impacted by a smarter grid, as I mentioned earlier.

There are a number of levers that need to be pulled so we can make sure we’re ready for change when it happens.

What’s the worst-case scenario if we don’t identify and address these gaps now? 

When talking about a ‘what if’ scenario, buying-in labour from India and China inevitably comes up. But I don’t think Australia has a problem with skilled labour migration, it’s just an easy ball to kick around.

For me, the worst-case scenario involves a number of factors that could play out simultaneously; ongoing cost increases to the consumer; delayed deployment of technology that could save people money and, my greatest concern, increased workplace and consumer injuries brought about by an unskilled and underprepared workforce. We’re dealing with electricity and electricity kills people. We’ve seen this time and time again; if a workforce dealing with electricity isn’t ready – if it doesn’t have the skills it needs – it leads to increased injuries and even fatalities. If we act now, we can move into the new energy world more cheaply, more safely and we can be more productive. But if we don’t do something now, we run the risk of jeopardising peoples’ safety, not just in their workplace but in their homes. If this isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is.

From a workforce rollout perspective, poor planning of the skills required for the deployment of smart meters across Victoria led to increased costs, longer installation times, project delays and substantial customer dissent. Electric shocks were also reported by customers.

If we look at bigger picture workforce implications, organisations like Ergon and Energex will fundamentally have to change their business model in this new world. But it’s an exciting time for the industry, where organisations have both the opportunity and time to adapt their businesses to become more agile and to become the leaders in what comes next. This isn’t the death of the electricity industry, it’s just the start of a new way of operation.

Anthea’s research formed a brief paper, the first in a series by Energy Skills Queensland (ESQ) for 2015, aimed to provide a general framework for more detailed workforce analysis. For more information or to get in touch with ESQ regarding data and research, contact Anthea on


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