Challenges Facing the Power Industry

Today’s power industry is facing many more challenges than even, say, 10 years ago.  For instance, many expect the Power Industry to lose a significant portion of its workforce very soon.  Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 when most power plants were built after the war, are going to retire.  According to a January 2017 assessment by the US Department of Energy, 25% of US employees in electric and natural gas utilities will be ready to retire within 5 years.[i] The US Department of Labor also estimates that up to half of the current power industry workforce will retire within 5-10 years; meanwhile, the average age of industry employees is now over 50.[ii] So how does the power industry replace these people and all of their experience; by hiring millennials.

Younger millennials and Gen Z’ers have been a hard group of people to hire and retain in the power industry.  Mainly this is because millennials want access to innovative technology – something most power plants have been slow to adopt.  Transferring a power plant to the digital age is expensive and usually will take a back seat to other upgrades.  Power plants compete with petroleum industries and Google, Facebook, and Amazon for the best and the brightest.

Another challenge (and one that is not going away and probably will only worsen) is increasing environmental regulations.  Make no mistake, the power industry wants to have a good reputation as an environmentally progressive industry…but they will not make changes unless forced to because every change costs money- sometimes a huge amount.  Renewable energy is excellent on the company homepage but is not living up to the hype, and in some cases, is hurting the industry – mainly due to inconsistency.  For instance, in South Australia, there has been so much focus on renewable energy that coal power plants are being shut down at a huge rate…and now the sector is fearful their energy supply is not as reliable.  If the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining for a significant period of time, where is the energy going to come from (iii)?

The changing environment in the industry is also a concern.  Renewables, cheap shale natural gas and in-home power storage all affect the power industries decisions.  The problem is that these changes are hard to plan for.  Many power plants have gone to natural gas as a cheap alternative to coal.  But what happens when natural gas prices go back up?  It is not as easy to restart a coal plant that has been shut down for years or may have been removed altogether.

Health and safety in the Coronavirus world are massive concerns in the power industry and the world.  How do power plant managers keep their employees safe?  If you have never worked at a power plant, it is hard to imagine the number of people on the site daily.  Contractors, truck drivers, employees from other plants, and government officials are just a few people who visit a site daily and must if the plant is going to operate efficiently.  How do plant managers balance the people who are vital to the plant’s operation and keep their people safe?  How do we limit the people or ensure they are tested before coming on-site?

There are many more challenges that could be addressed here – cybersecurity, physical security, deregulation, civil unrest, and a changing political environment could also be discussed as it pertains to the power industry.  But these are challenges every sector is facing in these uncertain times.  Almost every industry, including the government, face these challenges daily.   Attracting younger millennials and Gen Z’ers, dealing with uncertain power generation and new technologies, increasing environmental regulations, and ensuring the health and safety of the plant are power generation challenges that must be met to ensure the health and safety of the distribution grid.  The power industry must meet these challenges head-on and find new and innovative ways to overcome them if the grid is to remain stable.

[i] U.S. Department of Energy, Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) Task Force report second installment titled “Transforming the Nation’s Electricity System.” Chapter V: Electricity Workforce of the 21st-Century: Changing Needs and New Opportunities. January 2017.

[ii] U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration “Industry Profile – Energy.”

(iii) Guardian article dated September 01, 2020 LINK