Alectra Utilities, which recently announced plans to spend $8 million in 2023 to upgrade the power grid in Barrie, is gearing up for an automated future and that means an ever-changing workforce.
“There's a lot more electronics in the devices that are in the field now, and different technologies require different skill sets,” said Michael Wittemund, vice-president, lines operations at Alectra, which serves Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe area and also has offices on Patterson Road in Barrie.
Wittemund says changes to the grid, particularly with the integration of distributed energy resources such as solar and wind power, will change how utilities operate and control their systems.
“There are a lot more theory and technical abilities required around making decisions when operating a system that enables bi-directional flow of electricity," he said.
Wittemund sees the shift to a grid with a two-way flow of electricity and data between power utilities and consumers, known as the Smart Grid (SG), unfolding over the next five or 10 years.
“I can see utilities getting into that market a little bit more and the skill sets for individuals being able to qualify to operate the utility systems changing as well," he added.
Wittemund says Alectra is still determining what these skills will be, as well as figuring out the right academic background for people who operate systems with more intelligent infrastructures.
“It's a little bit further ahead for us, but it could be an engineer, an engineering technologist, or individuals with a varying skill set that is a little bit above what typical operators have," he said.
Wittemund says there are also a number of other roles that will be critical in the future as the network moves toward a "smart grid," a system that will require more sensors and devices connected to consumers.
“The change in metering and infrastructure will increase the demand of metering technicians," he noted.
Alectra is currently working to increase the number of automated switchers and other devices in the field, and more skilled field staff is already needed.
“Understanding how these devices intermingle with each other and how to set them up will involve a higher-level skill set that we're looking for," Wittemund said.
He explained that the devices are controlled remotely and, for instance, help bring power back to customers in areas affected by outages using less human intervention.
“These devices will improve our restoration time and make the grid more reliable and resilient," Wittemund added.
Alectra estimates the demand for electricity in Barrie and parts of Simcoe County will require an additional 140 megawatts (MW) over the next 20 years.
The growth in demand will include housing and commercial development, electric vehicles and electrification projects, among other drivers.
To put that in context, the additional increment is more than half of the current system peak of 232 MW recorded in 2020.
Wittemund also noted there are a number of positions currently available for power-line technicians (PLTs) within Alectra, and that this will continue given the number of retirements and the forecasted increase.
“There is demand not only to replace the experienced workers that are retiring, but also to bring in more PLTs in the future to meet the demand of the industry that's changing as well," he said.
As for the Smart Grid technology, Wittemund says it’s still in its infancy and not yet at a point where there's an influx of staff with different skill sets to manage the system.
“We're still working our way through that, but we expect that over the next three to five years we’ll move in that direction as a utility," he said. "And most utilities are doing the same thing as well.”
For individuals who are looking for opportunities in the upcoming energy transition in the electrical utility industry, Wittemund says they should consider enrolling in a co-op program.
“We’re working with colleges and universities on co-op programs to help give students the prospect of working for a utility and a sense of what we're doing now and in the future," he added.
Wittemund says Alectra also works closely with post-secondary institutions such as Georgian College and Mohawk College, and takes pride in giving back to communities by training the next generation of employees.
For more information on Alectra, click here.