How renewable energy operators can confront the SCADA and IT skills shortage

Renewable energy operators are considering their options to combat the SCADA skills shortage in the face of potential supply chain impacts.(Courtesy: NREL)

Contributed by Woodrow Boles, Jr., Director of Renewables SCADA for EverLine

The changes in renewable energies over the last ten years are palatable. The explosion of technologies is primarily attributed to falling costs. The economies of scale and competitive supply chains create a situation where the more technologies are deployed, the cheaper they become, which in turn spurs more deployment. Renewables are becoming self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating, which aids in informed public debate, adoption, financing, and policy support.

The numbers are reflective of the popularity of renewables. As demand for other fuels decline, renewable energy use had increased. There are now 67,000 operational, utility-scale wind turbines situated on 1,500 wind farms and 2,500 utility-scale solar plants/farms in the United States. Considering all its success, what is keeping industry executives up at night is the labor shortage.

Renewable energies use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to help operate sites. Acting as the central nervous system for sensors, alarms, and switches, utility SCADA links hardware and software components of a site to monitor, control, and analyze performance. SCADA systems can regulate individual wind turbines and solar inverters with pause, stop, and start commands or control different components within each technology. However, its natural prowess is in delivering overall site control and providing stability to the grid.

Utilities and owners adjust their power plant’s active power, reactive power, and frequency over the course of the day to ensure consistency in the grid. SCADA controls the power output to regulate the frequency, using a control loop to measure at or as close to the interconnection substation as possible, adjusting power output to change the frequency until it is within the 60Hz deadband range. Voltage is controlled in a similar manner, using reactive power or adjusting the tap changer on the transformer to meet the required voltage for that substation. Active power is adjusted throughout the entire day to ensure that there is enough power available for the consumer, but not too much power on the grid that it causes issues.

SCADA engineers are the specialized technicians responsible for the operation and maintenance of all the communication channels. They ensure that the data continues to run smoothly so large-scale processes can be maintained without business interruption. They also must be able to read electrical drawings and schematics and quickly diagnose and respond to emergency situations.

The shortage of SCADA skills and knowledge is potentially the greatest threat to this critical infrastructure. In some cases, it is named the top risk factor and barrier to success over implementation costs and security risks. According to a report from Gartner, the lack of available talent has become a leading cause of reticence of technology adoption among six technology domains, including computing infrastructure and platform services, network, security, digital workplace, IT automation and storage, and database – all of which are components of SCADA. Gartner research vice president Yinuo Geng explained that the ongoing push toward remote work and the acceleration of hiring plans in 2021 has exacerbated IT talent scarcity, especially for sourcing skills that enable cloud and edge, automation, and continuous delivery.

To mitigate a potential chain reaction of effects the industry may suffer as growth outpaces available skills, renewable operators are considering their options to combat the SCADA skills shortage.

Looking in-house

Looking for talent in-house, reskilling, and upskilling may be a meaningful way to address the skills gap. By training existing employees who have the potential to fill in the talent gap, operators have made-to-order technicians. It also has the potential to act as a retention strategy, but it’s a long-range plan. Some companies are starting from the ground up by incentivizing high schoolers to enter the industry – an even longer-range approach. Where in-house and outside training may provide valuable expertise to improve the skillset and competencies of current employees, it could take years to put them through a comprehensive training program that acquaints them with the technical requirements required.

Falling behind on recruiting is a competitive issue that renewable operators cannot risk. Building a talent pipeline with recruitment guidelines well before it is needed streamlines the hiring process and can influence a company’s reputation among candidates but does not address the current skills gap. For most, there is an absolute lack of time, budget, and formal training options for existing or new hire staff, so they may choose internal staff or new hires with one or two major skillsets and then provide on-the-job training to round out skills and knowledge. Adding a thick layer of complexity, renewable energy organizations typically require  SCADA engineers to have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, although a master’s degree may be preferred. They also like their candidates to have at least five years of relevant experience to enhance their exemplary computer and communication skills. In addition to skills and training in SCADA, they need a comprehensive understanding of the renewable energy industry and industry-wide best practices and compliance requirements.

Outsourcing

Hiring out of urgency and knowing the available talent is not suitable enough would be disastrous. So to comprehensively address the burgeoning skills gap and lack of qualified talent, many renewable companies are turning to outsourced SCADA vendors.

Outsourcing non-core yet critical operational functions is, and has always been, a strategic management tool that offers a degree of agility. It provides the ability to focus on core competencies while being more effective and efficient. Outsourcing SCADA provides access to deep subject matter expertise and skilled resources necessary for operational efficiency and maximizing security, integration, interoperability, and system availability. Because experience is a key critical component of successful SCADA delivery, a reputable third-party service provider will have expertise in designs unique to renewable operations with years of best practices to leverage. They should have broad knowledge across SCADA systems, IT infrastructure, and other supporting systems for complete coverage of all aspects of systems management.

Outsourcing provides improved project delivery as well as safer and more reliable ongoing operations – a win for the renewables industry.


About the author:

Woodrow Boles, Jr. currently serves as the Director of Renewables SCADA for EverLine, a fully-integrated, compliance, SCADA/IT, control room, and security services company. In his current role, he is responsible for all interactions with companies that have existing renewable assets or plan to add renewables to their portfolio, leading their SCADA integration into one of the largest, fully NERC compliant 3rd party control centers.

Woodrow has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno, and has over 13 years of Renewable Energy industry experience, working with some of the largest owners of Wind, Solar, and Battery systems in the world. He started in the Renewable industry by erecting wind turbines, moved into the maintenance of wind turbines and major component swaps out, and settled in the engineering and design of SCADA systems. He has integrated nearly 10 GWs of Renewable Energy, working with OEMs, Owners, Offtakers, substations, and 3rd party subcontractors, across most of the ISO regions of North America.

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