Over his two decades in the utility industry, Lee Recchia has learned it takes a certain type of person to work successfully in an energy control center. An even temperament is critical, says Recchia, who moved from a job as a power system operator at California’s Burbank Water & Power (BWP) utility into a managerial role as head of the energy control center.
"Being a system operator has always taken the type of worker who can go from zero to 60 in a second without getting frantic," said Recchia, who spent over a decade at the California Independent System Operator (ISO) before coming to BWP. "They have to deal with an outage or an element on the system that could cause injuries and be able to maintain their calm."
The ability to remain calm during high stress is one of the few aspects of an operator's job that won't change in the near future. Indeed, as the power system evolves to integrate large amounts of intermittent renewable energy and distributed energy resources (DER) like rooftop solar and electric vehicles (EVs), the skills and tools required to seamlessly manage power flows and maintain grid reliability are in a constant state of flux.
"The big change is operators have had the same system and tools for years, and now all of a sudden we're seeing changes on a monthly basis where we’re coming up with new tools to control solar and renewables," said Recchia. "Every month we are coming out with new curtailment tools for renewables and system add-ons, and we have to get people trained on how to use them."
The need to provide continuous training to equip utility workers with the skills required to operate a rapidly changing power system is by no means limited to BWP. Utilities everywhere face challenges and demands that extend well beyond integrating and managing new technologies. In part, the need to institute effective training programs is driven by compliance, particularly the North American Electric Reliability Corporation's (NERC) PER-005 standard. NERC requires training to ensure system operators have the necessary skills to maintain bulk power system reliability, and imposes steep fines for noncompliance.
Another increasingly important reason for training is large numbers of experienced utility workers are reaching retirement age. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates 25% of the utility workforce is likely to retire by 2023. Also, even as the grid transforms, many of the assets that constitute the building blocks of the power system are aging. The most recent infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s energy system a C- grade due to insufficient investments in upgrades as well as an overreliance on generation, transmission, and distribution assets built more than 50 years ago.
Renewed Focus on Training
Even as training becomes increasingly important, many utility leaders realize their programs for teaching new skills have been ignored for years. "A common theme I have seen with many established utilities is they had training programs that were very robust back in the day, and they had apprenticeship programs and training that worked really well," said Chad Johnson, lead training specialist and learning technologist at HSI, a company that develops and implements training programs for companies in a wide range of industries, including the power sector. "Over time, a lot of those training programs were allowed to languish."
But Johnson points out many utility leaders, like BWP's Recchia, understand the crucial role training plays in onboarding new employees, teaching experienced workers new skills, and maintaining the safe and reliable grid society depends on. What that training program looks like varies from utility to utility, but HSI engages with utility clients through a systematic approach known as ADDIE: analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate.
"The 'analyze' phase is when you go in and figure out what the tasks are an operator or other employee has to be able to perform," said Andy Burch, manager of training services for HSI. "Part of that process is to determine if the training we currently have fits those task lists, then do a gap analysis to see what is missing."
With that foundation of knowledge, it's then possible to design a training program from scratch or based on resources already in place. The development phase focuses on creating the content — be it PowerPoint presentations delivered by an in-person instructor, online courses, videos, or some combination of approaches — while the implementation phase is about determining a schedule and timeline for instruction.
The evaluation phase takes many forms that include and extend beyond whether the learning objectives were met during training. "The student gets to evaluate the content, the course, and the instructor, then you look at whether new skills or equipment have been added that will require future training," said Burch. "It's simply a continuous cycle of improvement to find ways to make instruction better."
A New Training Focus in Burbank
To understand what this systematic approach looks like in the real world, it's helpful to go back to BWP, where the utility has partnered with HSI to ensure its workers have the skills they need to operate and maintain an evolving power system. To ensure they do, many potential gaps need to be addressed with training, including the replacement of the utility's supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system for managing the distribution grid. "We're changing out that old system to a new advanced distribution management system [DMS] that takes into account distributed energy and renewables, such as solar and EV chargers, so we can have more control on our system," said Recchia.
Because these and other changes require employees acquire new skills, BWP worked with HSI to revamp training for new and existing employees. HSI collaborated with BWP to develop lists of the tasks workers must master to do their jobs inside and outside the control room. Then, to complete all the necessary tasks, instruction content, evaluation methods, and optimal ways to deliver and reinforce training were developed. "Training has always been really hard in this industry. Because operators work 12-hour rotating shifts, I might not see someone for months," said Recchia. "So it's hard to ask if they've been trained and understand the material."
This disconnect is why Recchia has found particular value in the online training management system HSI helped the utility deploy. Online courses make it easier for workers to fit training into their schedules and the training management system gives Recchia visibility into how they’re performing on tests and if they've learned new material. "If they fail the test, I can see that, reach out to determine what else they need, and get somebody to work with them so they understand it," he said.
Before BWP worked with HSI, the utility's focus was on training new employees. But insights from HSI helped BWP understand the continuous changes faced by all utilities means experienced workers also need ongoing training.
"We are implementing the whole training program for the new people, then we are looking for the training we need to do for our existing people on a cyclical basis. Even if someone has been an operator for 20 years, they need refresher courses and instruction on how to use all the new systems and tools we are implementing," said Recchia. "We're not quite there with everything, but we have revamped our training program to be more effective over the long term."