In my March editorial, “Shifting the PQ Perspective,” I discussed the need to transform customers' viewpoints about power quality. Another challenge to the delivery of reliable power is the chaotic downsizing of employees that is occurring at utilities all over the country.
In the past, utility company layoffs usually affected those in human resources and marketing. Today, the cuts consistently include engineers and others in operations — many of them with lengthy experience and higher salaries. And as utilities lose their technical expertise in upper management, personnel decisions are made without adequate understanding of the impact on system reliability.
So much utility activity today is focused on a company's position relative to restructuring. Long-term plans for system reliability are on the back burner, if they even exist at all. Consequently, the value placed on technical staffing has dropped significantly. Utilities have cut engineering so far that some can't even meet their own transmission and substation construction requirements. Inexperienced engineers are being asked to manage large projects and are relying on outside firms and contractors for guidance.
To make matters worse, remaining employees must contend with the fallout. Career paths are almost nonexistent in the utility industry, and the shuffling of players with ever-changing responsibilities erodes employee dedication and loyalty. Engineering and operational staffs have traditionally been renowned for doing whatever it takes to promptly restore service or meet customers' needs. Many of these individuals are so beaten down by their constantly changing roles and lack of appreciation that they aren't going to go the extra mile when needed. Why should they?
Another indication of the industry's wayward trend is the decreased involvement in industry-wide reliability efforts. Utilities used to be active participants in research and development to ensure the reliability of the grid. They used to conduct their own research, actively participate in national and regional electric associations, or at least fund the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), all in an effort to keep pace with the latest developments. Participation and funding of this type have fallen off significantly in the last decade. When utilities don't promote or won't allow employee involvement in these areas, it sends a clear message that reliability is not a top priority.
Who will meet the technological challenges required to create a robust, reliable grid for retail energy delivery? Few individuals have the opportunity and support it takes to drive this kind of change. Who will fill the shoes of today's industry leaders such as John Mungenast (see the special column, on page 8)? I see very few candidates emerging. Every time I attend an IEEE/PES meeting, I hear somebody lamenting about the lack of new engineers coming into the power industry. It's no wonder we have lost out to other electrical industries. The power industry constantly changes its focus (and/or your role), pays less, and fails to adequately promote technical development. It doesn't even provide good job security anymore.
There is a silver lining to these reckless staff reductions. Help is coming from the state public utility commissions. More of them are mandating reliability and power quality standards. According to a study by Navigant Consulting, 27 states have reliability standards in place and another six have regulations pending. Many utilities are responding favorably to these efforts and reasserting the need to retain and develop their technical talent. Those that do will be in the best position to deliver power quality in the future.