This is a continuation of our two-part series about the future of the electrical industry. If you haven’t read Part 1, “The Electron Revolution,” find it here.
These are good times to be a North American line worker.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama said the future of electricity was the smart grid.
Nearly 10 years later that future is now. A combination of new technology, new software, regulations and business models is creating tens of thousands of new jobs in one of the most highly unionized industries in North America.
"Unlike any time since 1900, the world's energy system is in play," said professor David Victor of the University of California, San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy.
Part one of this series about the future of the electrical industry ("Everything About the Electrical Industry is Changing," Dec. 2017) covered the generation business, a transformation that is echoing loudly on the delivery side as well.
Monopoly utilities were once considered dinosaurs. But these new technologies, along with new business models and new regulations, are putting them at the center of some of the most progressive parts of the digital economy, including the electrification of cars, ports and trains, microgrids and virtual power plants, demand response, distributed energy generation and even driverless cars.
In the middle sits the North American power grid, the most complex machine created in human history. Each day, it is asked to do things it wasn't designed for while barely keeping up with its original job. Where it is keeping up, it is old and often congested. Too often, it's in the wrong place entirely.
Over the next several decades, billions of dollars will be spent bringing the transmission and distribution system into the 21st century and the skilled construction and utility line workers of the IBEW are perfectly placed to benefit from this once in a generation gold rush.
"There has never been a better time to be a union lineman," said Ray Kasmark, director of the IBEW Business Development Department. "But when this wave of work is done, will we look back and see that the majority of electrical workers gained or lost? Will we grow enough to match the size of the opportunity, or will working men and women have missed out? It all depends on what happens in the next few years."
New Generation, New Jobs
North America is in the middle of a decadeslong transmission system overhaul. Utilities and independent transmission companies have invested nearly $140 billion in new transmission lines since 2010, according to the Edison Electric Institute.
A significant driver of that investment was the focus of Part 1: the closure since 2002 of 11 percent of traditional central station power plants, primarily coal, and the opening of renewable and natural gas plants.
Very few of the new generation stations are built on top of the existing infrastructure, particularly grid-scale wind and solar. Nearly 90 percent of wind resources and 70 percent of potential grid-scale solar — but only 30 percent of the demand — are between the Rockies and the Mississippi, according to the Wind Energy Foundation. The race to connect that potential power to the people who need it is on, and billions are at stake.
The Department of Energy conducted dozens of studies about how much renewable generation the grid could successfully integrate by the middle of the century, as high as 60 percent. Every successful model required dramatic investments in transmission.
Right now, there are 15 projects worth nearly $100 billion in advanced development, capable of carrying 52,000 megawatts. Kasmark said the IBEW has signed multiple strategic partnerships with transmission line developers, including the 192-mile Northern Pass project that projects to bring more than 1,000 MW of power from Canadian hydroelectric generation to New Hampshire.
The IBEW also signed a partnership agreement with North Houston Pole Line for the $800 million, 350-mile transmission line that will connect nearly a thousand wind turbines in the Oklahoma panhandle.
Even when the new generation isn't half a continent away, the existing infrastructure may not be able to handle it, said Construction and Maintenance Department Director Jim Ross.
"In some places, they are building generation plants next to overloaded lines," Ross said. "They want to build more transmission now but they are asking 10 years too late. We will be seeing a lot more of that work, connecting new generation to the grid, not cross-country lines, but locally."
How many jobs is an open question, but the Brattle Group, an engineering consulting firm, estimated that there will be $10-20 billion spent just to replace closing coal plants and an additional $50-60 billion just to meet state renewable production standards.
The only real question is when plans will translate to jobs. Unlike gas pipelines, which are exclusively federally controlled and sited, electrical transmission has at least 75 state-level or below siting authorities, according to Dan Belin, a specialist with the engineering firm Stantec.
The fastest project from proposal to ground breaking, a transmission line from western Pennsylvania to West Virginia, took nearly five years. The longest, the Susquehanna-Roseland line, has been in the works for 92 years. The EPA review for one project, Gateway West, took six years, and it was fast tracked. Permitting is expected to take another five years.
It can be done though. IBEW members, including some from San Angelo, Texas, Local 898, were instrumental in the state's Competitive Renewable Energy Zone, which built transmission to likely, high-wind areas first and then let private business build out the generation infrastructure. More than 18,500 MW of wind generation came online and 3,600 miles of transmission wire were built in nine years.
Another source of new transmission that is often overlooked is demand caused by the unpredictability of wind and solar. Nuclear and coal generation isn't just local, it is reliable. As more variable generation comes online, grids that were designed and built by local utility monopolies to serve their local customer base 50, even 100 years ago, are being connected to one another to form larger regions, and the regional interconnections are themselves increasingly interconnected.
And, of course, in addition to the new construction driven by new generation and its implications, there is all the traditional work IBEW members have been doing for more than a century.
The existing grid needs maintenance and there will always be storm damage to repair. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria collectively knocked out power for more than 5 million people and the cleanup involved the largest mobilization of IBEW linemen ever.
The American Society of Civil Engineers reported a $177 billion gap between the investment needed in transmission and distribution and what was actually spent. The result is that, although the total size of disruptions is falling, there are still thousands of outages every year, costing the economy tens of billions of dollars.
"We have no national grid. We don't even have a national policy," said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston. "What we have are four continental interconnects, 10 regional markets, 50 state public utility commissions, 66 balancing authorities and a few thousand utility-built grids that are nearing six decades old. Whatever the future holds, that is the past we are dealing with."
New Grid, New Jobs
When Obama made that 2009 prediction about the smart grid, he was
also celebrating the completion of what, at the time, was the largest
solar array in the country: the 25 MW Desoto Next Generation Solar
Energy Center, which represented about 1 percent of the nation's nearly
3,000 MW of solar generation.
Today, there is more than 50,000 MW of installed solar, and
nearly 20,000 MW of it sits behind meters on the roofs of more than a
million homes and businesses. At certain times of day, they are
traditional energy consumers drawing power from the grid, and at other
times, they are miniature power plants sending it back out. In
California, the grid is becoming a net injector of power.
"The problem is we spent trillions of dollars building a
grid that isn't designed for that," Colston said. "That's also the
Wires can physically carry power up and downstream as
easily as pavement can carry cars one way or another. But all the stop
signs, on and off ramps and traffic laws are aimed in the wrong
direction and need to change without a single light flickering off.
"Upgrading all the separate utility-owned grids is a 20-year job," Colston said.
To manage these multidirectional, variable flows, utilities not only
need to understand what is happening on their grid, they will
increasingly take control of how and when customers use that energy.
Wires will be festooned with billions of sensors in an endless
conversation with suppliers, utilities, customers and markets. Utilities
will match intermittent supply with intermittent demand by adjusting
both, deploying smart meters, smart water heaters, microgrids and energy
storage as easily as deploying excess generation capacity.
Every day, more of everything will be electrified to reduce
pollution, increase efficiency and lower costs. Midwest utility Ameren,
for example, is planning now for the electrification of everything from
forklifts and other industrial vehicles to most heating, manufacturing
and even farms. Its five-year "integrated grid" plan will cost more than
"What will we have to put in place to plug in everything?"
asked Taylor Beis, political affairs director at Edison Electric
Institute. "Really, you are talking about what the utility of the future
The technology may be on the cutting edge, but nearly all
of it will have to be installed with bucket trucks, side cutters, a
sturdy pair of boots and a tool-filled canvas bag.
Smart meters, for example, are the minimal hardware, the
ticket for admission that everything else relies on, and only 70 million
of 125 million households have them installed.
An obvious downside to automatic meters is the end of the
need for meter readers. Then again, there will be a lot more jobs
installing, maintaining and upgrading the grid, Colston said.
"We still need linemen who can stand up a pole, pull wire
and make sure voltages are correct," he said. "We will also need grid
communication specialists; linemen who can install sensors, make sure
they're programmed correctly and ensure they can communicate. They are
different specialties and we need both."
Some states are already well underway. Diamond Bar, Calif.
Local 47 and Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 have been upgrading and
overhauling their grid for more than a decade. But so have smaller
states like Vermont.
"The utilities are hiring more relay technicians to deal
with the intricacies of the smart grid," said Montpelier, Vt., Local 300
Business Manager Jeffrey Wimette. "This is stuff linemen have never
dealt with before, but it is our work and I expect to be doing a lot
more of it in the next five years."
Smart meters and omnipresent sensors will give utilities
the ability to know exactly what is happening, and where, on its grid.
From there, remarkable new opportunities open up the true promise of the
smart grid: reducing consumption, cleaning up energy and making it all
more reliable and resilient with storage and demand response programs.
The technology that brings all of that together is the
microgrid: localized groups of utility customers, renewable generation
and batteries linked by software that can send power to the battery, to
the customer and can even reduce customer energy consumption when demand
Local 300 members are already working on a project with a
2-MW lithium ion battery system, solar and wind generation and demand
response hardware, and they are far from alone.
The city of Oakland, Calif., is closing a power station run
on jet fuel and replacing the lost generation with substation upgrades,
customer efficiency improvements, utility-built and owned rooftop solar
arrays and storage. There will be no new transmission, no new
generation and Local 1245 members will be doing the work.
For too long, environmentalists and labor unions have ended
up on opposite sides, said Local 1245 Business Representative Hunter
Stern. The Oakland plan promises the potential for peace.
"The utility will do it, the PUC [the state's Public
Utility Commission] approved it and the environmentalists will support
it," Stern said.
Making Life Harder, Less Safe & More Expensive
The West Oakland project had near universal support, but it might never have happened.
Since the deregulation of 1996, traditional utilities
cannot own generation assets and most states are not clear where the
border lies between the greener corners of the smart grid and
generation. Projects like this just simply had not been anticipated by
policymakers and regulators even a few years ago, and the rules had to
Another example: this summer, Nest, makers of a smart
thermostat, is partnering with Southern California Edison to deliver the
equivalent of 50 MW by reducing demand in 50,000 homes. Is that
generation, grid-level storage or a traditional efficiency program?
PG&E had to get approval from the state Public
Utilities Commission to build and link the hundreds of rooftop solar
arrays that would partially replace the generation lost when the West
Oakland power plant closed.
Electric vehicle charging stations had a similar story. At first, utilities couldn't build or own them.
"But so few were built, regulations had to be changed and they were," Beis said. "The results are clear."
After electric vehicle sales stalled between 2013 and 2015,
they are rising again from about 115,000 in 2015 to 160,000 in 2016 to
nearly 200,000 last year.
Now the debate has moved to who can own, install and ultimately benefit from storage.
"The PUC is requiring storage and subsidizing it, so we are
arguing that everyone should benefit from it. If it is subsidized, it
needs to be connected to the grid," Stern said. "The nightmare is where
people need and use the grid, but don't pay for it."
The reality, Colston said, is that the public policy
decisions about pricing, market structure and who gets to own what will
determine who will do this work.
"Popular support is great, but it is informed, energetic
political action that makes the difference," he said. "The IBEW, through
our membership, can be a powerful voice. We can be the difference
between green jobs being good careers and green jobs being mediocre jobs
The majority of states have recognized the need for
modernizing their grids and 33 took more than 184 legislative and
regulatory actions in 2017. California is, as is often the case on
electricity, far ahead of the rest of the country.
But decisions like the one from the PUC in West Oakland are
being made now by other public utility commissions, at the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission, in legislatures and in other regulatory
meetings at federal, state and county levels. For these jobs to be union
jobs, IBEW members in the rest of the country have to make themselves
"These are policy choices that IBEW members can and should
speak up about, early and often," said Political Director Austin Keyser.
The most common action was support for advanced metering infrastructure.
Most will be open to the public and accept comment. Keyser
encouraged every member to come to local meetings, get educated about
issues in their jurisdiction and try to attend.
New Jobs, New Challenges
The challenge is great, not only to win the new work, but
to keep the old work. The utility and construction workforces are some
of the oldest in the U.S. economy. Nearly half of utility workers, for
example, will be eligible for retirement in the next five to eight
"That is the question that keeps me up at night: how will
we man the jobs?" asked Ross. "The drain is fully open but there is only
a trickle of water coming out of the spigot."
Ross said the IBEW has 27,000 apprentices, but he could put twice that many to work.
International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said every member of the IBEW ought to know by now what needs to be done.
"This is a once in a generation — maybe several generations
— opportunity. When it is over, will we look back and see that we used
this opportunity to make good on the first objective of the IBEW, to
'organize the entire electrical industry?'" he asked. "Only if we
organize like our future depends on it."