Key Trends in the Utilities Industry

Utilities are increasingly busy, but handling their workload is becoming more difficult due to an aging workforce and a need to control costs.

Although U.S. energy consumption is growing at a modest rate, the electrical utility industry will be busier than ever over the next few decades due to increased global demand for renewable generation as a shift away from nuclear and coal generation is driven by increased regulations to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Aging infrastructure of existing facilities is adding to demand for engineering services, while an aging workforce amplifies the dearth of engineering capabilities and resources.

American energy consumption, predicted to grow just .03 percent per year, has been impacted by reductions in energy intensity resulting from improved technologies and trends driven by existing laws and regulations. However, a growing global population contributes to a 24 percent overall increase in demand from 2013 to 2040. That demand will increasingly be satisfied with lower-carbon options like renewable energy sources (hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy and ocean power), reflecting rising long-term natural gas prices and the high-capital costs of new coal and nuclear generation capacity. Also on the rise is natural gas-fired electric power, given the continued reduction in cost due to new natural gas resources being explored and utilized.

Improved efficiency of energy consumption in end-use sectors and a shift away from more carbon-intensive fuels help to stabilize U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, which remain below the 2005 level through 2040.

Impact of new regulations
Fueling the bulk of the switch to renewables is the Clean Power Plan establishing the first national limit on carbon pollution produced by power plant emissions. Hardest hit by the new regulation are coal-fired generating plants. Fortunately, natural gas prices have fallen in recent years and have stabilized recently.  With the forced closing of coal-fired plants, much of the reduced capacity can be mitigated with gas-fired plants. Though gas-fired plants are not as efficient (due to size), carbon emissions are lower than those coal-fired plants they replace. Coal made up more than 80 percent of retired electricity generating capacity in 2015. The amount of coal capacity retired in 2015 was about 4.6 percent of the nation's coal capacity at the beginning of that year.

Need for new transmission lines
The rise of solar energy is spurring an extensive build out of transmission lines in the U.S. Solar energy is most effectively generated in the desert Southwest, whereas most usage occurs in the commercial centers in the more densely populated East and West coasts.

Wind generation, similarly, is most effective in the Great Plains area, also away from the bulk of the usage.

Top 10 states for wind generation
1. North Dakota
2. Texas
3. Kansas
4. South Dakota
5. Montana
6. Nebraska
7. Wyoming
8. Oklahoma
9. Minnesota
10. Iowa

The transmission lines will connect with Smartgrid, which diverts power where it’s needed most - mostly toward commercial and industrial usage during the day and residential at night.

Transmission line modernization is also required at locations where coal-fired plants are being retired. Without the coal-fired generating plants moving power through the transmission lines emanating from those plants, planning and modernization must occur to ensure capacity is available, congestion is eliminated and no islanding occurs.

Challenges in the industry 
State of the Electric Utility 2016, a survey of more than 500 utility executives by Utility Dive, notes that “Utilities have always had to worry about their workforce, infrastructure and regulatory models - but in the twenty first century, new technologies, market entrants and regulations have given these legacy challenges a new face.”

Chief among those challenges is the aging workforce, which utility executives rated as their top concern.

In addition, there are cost pressures that may hinder companies in hiring as many full-time employees as they have in the past.

Their concerns are backed up by data in the hiring industry. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that there were more than 2.5 million engineering jobs posted from 2014 to 2015, with only 567,000 active job candidates seeking those jobs.

In addition, there are cost pressures that may hinder them in hiring as many FTEs as they have in the past.

The EASi solution
EASi specializes in helping utilities overcome these challenges, by offering engineering staffing solutions that enable utilities to scale staffing up and down according to demand. Partnering with a vendor like EASi can enable utilities to meet their many challenges while still maintaining the highest quality standards.

Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration; American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)