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Published: Tuesday, 1/18/2011

Electric power industry aims to spark students' interest


GRANVILLE, Ohio -- Speaking to a classroom of seventh and eighth graders at the middle school in this city near Columbus, Lisa Magnuson shared a popular dictum from the power industry: If Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, could see how his technology had evolved over the last century, how would he react?

"He'd be amazed," offered one student, mentioning that his cell phone can play music, display movies, and send text messages.

And if Thomas Edison, the pioneer of power distribution, were to return?

"He'd probably go, 'Wow, everything is still the same,'" said Ms. Magnuson, the director of marketing for Silver Spring Networks, which produces hardware and software to make the electric grid as smart as the phone network.

To pull off the modernization, Ms. Magnuson and others are trying to persuade this generation of fidgety teenagers to put their creativity to work in the power industry once they graduate.

The federal government and utilities are spending billions to upgrade the electric grid with intelligent digital technology so they can vary a customer's price for power based on the time of day and more seamlessly integrate electricity from a variety of sources such as wind and solar.

The upgrade would give the power generation and distribution network the sort of nervous system it has lacked since Edison conceived it in the late 19th century.

By some estimates, the smart grid could help reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent a year by 2030 and save $20 billion a year for utilities and their customers.

To push along the transformation, educators and government officials, often in partnership with utilities, are drawing up smart-grid curriculums for elementary classrooms, vocational schools, and university laboratories. In addition to educating youngsters about electricity, the goal is to lure some of the technologically inclined away from Silicon Valley.

"How will the smart grid change your life or your future career?" students are asked in one of the six lessons that Silver Spring Networks, based in California, helped to develop and which were part of a pilot program this month in Ohio and in Oakland, Calif. "Write a journal entry in which you imagine how life or work will change after the smart grid is ready to go."

Part of the course work is aimed at preparing young consumers for the arrival of dynamic pricing -- the ability to vary the price of electricity throughout the day, based on overall demand, rather than charge one rate all day, as is the norm now.

Dynamic pricing is an oft-promoted benefit of the smart grid, although it has proved contentious in some of the markets where it has been proposed, particularly among customers at home during the day, when the cost is higher.

In central Ohio, American Electric Power was awarded $75 million in stimulus money last year for a $150 million smart-grid pilot project now in development.

In addition to replacing roughly 110,000 analog electric meters at customers' homes with digital meters that can transmit data to and from the utility in real time, American Electric -- working with Silver Spring Networks and other companies -- will deploy and test a full menu of interconnected grid technologies such as digital management, distribution networks, plug-in hybrid cars, and smart appliances.

To address the shortage of trained workers, utilities have been working through organizations such as the Center for Energy Workforce Development, which concluded in a survey last year that retirements and attrition would cost the energy industry roughly half of its engineers and skilled technicians by 2015.

Jin Wang, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University, said that in the last two decades, many universities had cut back on energy programs.

"It was somehow regarded as an area that does not allow new innovations," said Mr. Wang, who heads his department's integrated curriculum for smart power engineering, which received $2.5 million in stimulus money.

But blackouts, increased demand, new loads from electronics and computers, new power sources such as solar and wind, and the expected adoption of electric vehicles are all presenting new engineering and control challenges, he said.

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