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Technology implications for the power utility workforce

The power utility workforce is more strained than ever.  New technology can help.

In 2020 and already in 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with natural disasters including wildfires, floods, extreme cold, and windstorms have combined with predicted baby-boomer retirements to place huge strains on the power utility workforce.  These challenges have shown how critical the power utility workforce is to the functioning of our society’s core infrastructure.   This posting points out three ways modern technology can help relieve at least some of this strain.

Remote management
Advanced protective equipment, battery chargers, and battery monitors can all provide data and alarms necessary for remote monitoring and even management.   Remote management is clearly more efficient and much better suited to the limitations imposed by pandemic personal safety measures.  While older technology often enables some aspects of remote management, more advanced features such as extended event logging are often not present.  A 2018 paper by the Boston Consulting Group entitled How Utilities Can Boost Workforce Productivity with Digital  provides a broad review of this topic for the entire power & utility industry.

Improved service effectiveness and efficiency
A vast amount of knowledge necessary to service legacy equipment has been lost as skilled baby boomers retire from the workforce.   Modern technology provides a huge advantage in countering this loss by building extensive self-diagnostics into systems, employing strategies such as modular hot-swap power converters for UPS systems and battery chargers, and using standard network components to install battery monitoring systems.   For example, if a modern substation battery charger with hot-swap power modules experiences a failure, it keeps on operating at reduced output and alerts the monitoring center of the issue.  The center can then dispatch a relatively junior technician to replace the failed module without interrupting system operation.  The service call doesn’t have to be an emergency and can be scheduled along with other calls, improving workforce productivity and preventing unnecessary truck rolls.

At the site, if the technician does have questions or issues, new service technologies enable any smartphone to become the remote eyes and ears for centrally located backup resources.  This technology, called augmented reality, enables the remote expert to annotate or even superimpose images of tools or meter probes onto the image that the on-site technician sees.

Recruiting advantage
Recruiting talent at all levels into the power industry has been a challenge for decades and is becoming no easier. Younger technical prospects are much more likely to be attracted to organizations who are employing modern technology.  Few are going to be excited about stepping back in time and working with twenty- or thirty-year-old technology that many are still purchasing today.

Modern technology alone won’t solve the workforce challenges organizations in the power industry face.  But technology is a critical part of the overall solution and one that senior management needs to push.  It’s more efficient, effective, and is certainly a big plus in attracting technical talent.