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The U.S. Department of Energy rolled out its Open Government Plan yesterday, pledging to be more transparent about energy policy shifts and to better educate the market about efficiency initiatives. A major part of the latter goal is teaching people about the benefits and importance of the Smart Grid — a concept that consumers and some utilities have yet to rally behind.

Tackling this challenge head on, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced today that the department will be sinking almost $100 million into 54 different Smart Grid training programs across the country. Targeted at about 30,000 utility workers and electrical equipment manufacturers, these programs will also use $95 million from universities, utilities and industrial groups to design curricula around the modernization of today’s electrical grid.

As some of the oldest and largely unchanged companies in the U.S., utilities move notoriously slow when it comes to adopting new technologies and updating equipment in the field. Some substations and transistors have been in place for decades. One of the reasons for this is that the workforce is older and accustomed to established practices. This new investment in training employees is an attempt by the federal government to shake things up and accelerate change.

Last fall, the Energy Department handed out $3.4 billion to utilities to help them deploy smart meters and other changes toward a cleaner, more energy efficient grid. Since then, thousands of meters have been deployed across the country, but response hasn’t been overwhelmingly positive.

Residents in Bakersfield, Calif. have gone as far as filing a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric, alleging that the installation of smart meters hiked their energy rates. Utilities have had a tough time responding these these accusations and others flowing in in other regions. Aside from verifying meter accuracy with third-party laboratories, they haven’t offered to do much else. Utility efforts to educate consumers about why smart meters represent a positive change have been weak at best.

At this point, bad PR could still break — or more likely, slow down — the Smart Grid. If the opposition gets loud enough in areas where smart meters have been rolled out, programs could be turned back or blocked elsewhere. Market education couldn’t be more critical — a trend that must start with the people working in the industry itself.

The $100 million allocated today will go to two categories of training initiatives: beefing up workforce training programs in the electric power sector in general, including interdisciplinary programs at universities and community colleges focused on training the electric power systems workers of tomorrow; and launching training programs for new hires — with an interesting emphasis on displaced workers and military veterans. This is consistent with the goal of most of the stimulus funds handed out in the green sector: the creation of a vibrant green-collar workforce.

Big utilities landing stimulus funds include:

  • Pepco Holdings: $4.4 million to train its workforce in Smart Grid equipment and to advise customers about Smart Grid changes.
  • Florida Power & Light: $5 million to enlist local academic institutions in retraining the utility’s workforce to better deploy the Smart Grid.
  • Mississippi Power Company: $2.6 million to train workers in transmission line automation, substation management and new metering infrastructure.
  • Duke Energy: $3.5 million to teach workers about consumer-facing Smart Grid products like home energy monitors and more.

You can see the full list of companies and academic institutions selected to receive money here (PDF).

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