IT jobs moving to smart grids, the mother of all networks – by Kevin Gibson

The growing energy sector has been a boon for engineers across the board as the world accelerates project development both in the traditional and renewables sectors. Many Electrical, Mechanical and SCADA engineers have moved into the energy sector successfully and have bright careers with an increasingly international flavour.

The next wave of career change will be with the industry’s IT work.

With so much effort being spent on increasing the efficiency of energy production there is now a focus on the efficiency of electrical grids. This is where IT experts can play their part in creating the innovative energy solutions necessary for generations to come.

The smart grid sector is growing rapidly and set to grow even faster. This claim is backed up by a recent report from Specialists in Business Information (SBI), which predicts the smart grid market will grow to 171 billion dollars by 2014. IT companies such as Cisco and IBM are benefiting from this massive growth, in part because their IT-savvy employees already have the skills necessary for building out smart grid solutions. IBM recently rolled out the first country wide smart grid project where they installed 250,000 smart meters in Malta. As part of the US$91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems.

IT experts working with smart grid companies can derive efficiencies for a relatively small investment. One just has to look at the capital investment, which is around US$1 billion to build a 600 MW coal-fired power plant that would power about 160,000 homes to see the need to minimise further construction.

While there are not enough working examples of city wide projects from which to draw data the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has produced an appraisal of the energy savings potential with smart grid deployment. EPRI calculates that the smart grid could reduce annual energy consumption by 56 to 203 billion kilowatt-hours by 2030, which translates into a large number of power plants that will not need to be built.

As such smart grids will change the way city administrators look at energy planning.

IT has always been at the forefront of societal change, and right now that change is in the way we use energy. The smart grid, sometimes called the ‘mother of all networks,’ is a natural fit for IT professionals drawn to the current revolution in clean energy and energy efficiency. For this reason, we predict the best and brightest will find their way to the smart grid sector over the next few years.

We estimate that in 2011 over 100,000 IT professionals will make the switch as urban communities fully grasp the savings that a smarter grid can derive. Specifically we see IT specialists joining smart grid firms from IT security, embedded software and networking companies.

Over time it is predicted related the career opportunities for systems engineers and architects, as well as infrastructure and connectivity experts will flourish as wide scale smart grids are rolled out.

Another key influence on the future of electrical grids will be the increasing use of electric vehicles (EVs). When the utilities start using smart grids to enable widespread EV adoption in the next 2-3 years, the industry will see a whole new wave of hiring as the public becomes more comfortable with EV reliability.

Opportunities for IT experts within the clean energy sector look set to expand dramatically for the foreseeable future.

The writer, Kevin Gibson, is chief executive officer of EarthStream, an international recruitment consultancy that operates in both the renewable and traditional energy sectors in addition to the related resources and environment sectors.

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