Are you ready for the smart grid? Spirae is making sure of it

By: Katrina Pfannkuch Monday August 6, 2012 Tags: City of Fort Collins, City of Fountain, Colorado University, InteGrid Lab, Julie Zinn Patti, Lynn Vosler, Schneider Electric, Smart Grid Live, Spirae, Telvent, Xcel Energy

By Katrina Pfannkuch

FORT COLLINS -- How we create and use energy is not just a hot topic in a political year-- it's directly tied to our economic future.

And as the gap between the skills required to develop and implement smart grid technology continues to grow, Spirae, Colorado State University, Front Range Community College and several local, state and federal organizations and companies have joined forces to fund ways to develop the necessary talent to transform the electrical grid.

Spirae smart grid course
To meet the energy demands of the future in a more economical and green way in Fort Collins and nationally, the electrical grid must be transformed into a smart, secure, bi-directional energy network -- or "smart grid." However, as new technology is developed and implemented, there is a lack of available trained people to design and develop smart grid solutions, according to Julie Zinn Patti, Spirae's chief operating officer.

"Spirae is in the power systems industry and -- over time -- we've had challenges finding the talent we need to develop and implement our solutions," Zinn Patti said. "A lot of our efforts are focused on solving the talent gap on our own with on-the-job training because the human resources element is so key to our company's growth."

But Spirae is now partnering with CSU and FRCC and the Colorado Workforce Development Council to create classes geared towards teaching people how to work on the smart grid. In addition, they are ensuring each trained technician and engineer clearly understands how their work contributes to the smart grid system as a whole.

Shared funds plus collaboration equals community success

To fund this work, Spirae was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Governor's Energy Office under the GIS Enhancement Project to upgrade lab equipment for students enrolled in smart grid courses. These funds, combined with funds from the Colorado Workforce Development Council, U.S. Department of Energy and the State Energy Sector Partnership, are supporting the development of a three-course, smart grid training program for technicians available through FRCC and a three-course smart grid training program for engineers through CSU.

"We submitted a proposal to the DOE for funding to create a curriculum for smart grid technology about three years ago - which we did not win - but establishing those partnerships has helped to pave the way to make this smart grid training possible," Zinn Patti said.

"During the last three years, we've developed strong relationships with CSU, the Larimer County Workforce Investment Board, Fort Collins Utilities, FRCC, and Telvent (in Windsor), so we were ready to jump on specific funding opportunities that arose to create classes and train a skilled workforce to meet the needs of the industry."

Programs at both schools leverage the InteGrid Lab and Spirae Network Operations Center for hands-on, experiential learning activities, which ZinnPatti said is key to understanding how to work on the smart grid as a fully-trained, collaborative team. And through funding from a Colorado State Energy Sector Partnership grant from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, more than 750 Colorado-based students are attending the smart grid courses in 2012.

In addition to the significant impact achieved through leveraged funds, these coordinated training activities -- implemented under the auspices of Spirae's Center for Smart Grid Advancement -- directly support job growth and economic development in the region as a showcase of these capabilities and a public launch of the Center for Smart Grid Advancement.

Spirae will host "Smart Grid Live," Sept. 25-27, that will showcase live demonstrations of smart grid solutions to an audience of technology providers and utilities from around the world, as well as governmental officials, educators and other stakeholders in the smart grid industry.

"So much leveraged funding has come together to make this possible  - that's why it's such a great story," said Zinn Patti. "Smart grid stakeholders are really pulling together to transform the entire electrical power industry. And these efforts will help support our community as we prepare to meet the future needs of industry."

The technical reality of preparing for smart grid technology

According to Lynn Vosler, FRCC director of Workforce Development, smart grid technology training classes are helping meet an industry need and providing economically viable training for students to serve a pivotal part of the economy at a time when viable training is incredibly scarce.

"FRCC has developed our training curriculum in partnership with CSU, Colorado University, Xcel Energy, the City of Fort Collins, the City of Fountain, Schneider Electric, Telvent and Spirae," Vosler said. "Our advisory board has guided development of all the courses to make sure they meet industry needs, and the multi-faceted State Energy Sector Partnership grant enables us to train people in Colorado for jobs related to renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean energy.

"FRCC is filling an important need that will keep Fort Collins connected to an emerging market and help make our students more marketable in the job force, long-term.

"Our classes focus on the job realities - how to read a smart grid meter, cyber security for the smart grid, and other technical trouble-shooting elements they need to manage in their daily jobs," Vosler said. "We also have a two-year degree in clean energy technology, so smart grid certificate training might be a nice capstone for graduates to add later."

Another impetus for the training programs is the fact that many in the current pool of those trained in the energy industry are reaching retirement age.

"With a retiring workforce, how will you implement smart grid technology and train new people? That's what makes this program unique -the hands-on nature of the training through labs with working, on-the-job technology," said Zinn Patti. "At least 50 percent of all classes are lab-based at the InteGrid lab or classroom. Students are interacting with the equipment -- hands-on -- and that's what's fundamental to these programs.

"We are on the cusp of a transformation of this industry, and you need trained, engineers and technicians to make that transformation possible."

For more information on specific classes, visit
Katrina Pfannkuch

About the Author: Katrina Pfannkuch

<b>Katrina Pfannkuch</b>  is a writer, creative consultant, content strategist and teacher. She has more than 14 years of experience with writing, editing and content strategy for a variety of companies and industries, and specializes in green business, health and wellness and metaphysical topics. Her blog, <a href="">CreativeKatrina</a>, explores ideas, tools and perspectives that tap into the creative seed present in every moment. She is also a contributor for BellaSpark Magazine and Yoga Connection Magazine, and teaches writing and blogging classes at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins. Katrina has an M.A. in Journalism from Northeastern University and a B. S. in Business Administration from Bryant University.