August 4, 2020
According to the Clean Jobs Midwest 2020 Report, Advanced Grid and Energy Storage jobs grew 5 percent in 2019. Overall, 2,899 Minnesotans were employed in this sector last year, making up 4.7 percent of the clean energy jobs in the state. Many Minnesotans are unaware of what exactly Advanced Grid is and what people who work in this field do. We talked to two of our member-businesses, Nokomis Energy and Werner Electric to learn more about what Advanced Grid and Energy Storage entail and what employees working in this sector do.
What is Advanced Grid and Energy Storage?
The term advanced grid refers to work being done to modernize the current grid and develop smart grid technologies. The electrical grid is the system of power stations and transmission infrastructure that delivers energy throughout the country. The first electrical grid was developed in 1886, which means there are many opportunities to take advantage of technology improvements to resolve the major limitations and high costs of the current electrical grid.
There are many goals of integrating new technologies into the grid, but a few of the most important are improving efficiency and cost, providing consumers with better information about their energy use and improving the system’s reliability and security.
Nokomis Energy partner, Julian White, tells us that to him, advanced grid means making the distribution system more optimal and deploying generation where it makes sense and finding smart and efficient ways to respond to demand.
“Optimizing the electrical system, or making it run more efficiently, will help save consumers money and decrease emissions,” White explained. “Right now, one of the best and easiest ways for us to do that work is by deploying a lot of local generation (a.k.a. solar).”
Energy storage refers to the process of saving energy to use at a later time. This area is particularly important for renewable energy sources, as there is not always consistent generation from the sun or wind.
According to a Werner Electric whitepaper on the topic, “Storage has made huge strides in efficiency and type. Instead of the old gigantic lead-plate batteries that are loaded with sulphuric acid, expensive to make, and harmful to the environment, modern batteries essentially use saltwater as the only electrolyte. They are also made of lithium iron, which reduces the risk of thermal issues and fire hazards. Renewable energy sources are now the cheapest form of power, eclipsing oil and gas even though fuel is at historically low prices.1”
Optimizing energy storage is critical to developing a stable, reliable and modern grid, which is why Advanced Grid and Energy Storage are often talked about hand-in-hand.
What do people working in Advanced Grid and Energy Storage do?
According to the Clean Jobs Midwest 2020 report, 1,948 Minnesotans work in clean storage, 244 in smart grid, 370 in micro grid and 337 work in “other” grid.
Clean Storage Workers in Minnesota
Individuals working in clean storage could research and improve battery materials, technologies and systems to increase capacity and reduce costs. Shorter duration energy storage technologies like lithium ion batteries are capable of handling the variations in energy throughout each day, like solar power generation decreasing in the evening. Longer duration options are necessary for periods of low wind or sun that span many days, like a polar vortex or heat wave. Minnesota will be home to a pilot program for testing an energy storage system with 150 hours of capacity in 2023.
There are many areas that make up the clean storage industry. Work in this field includes the miners who work to source battery compounds, the electrical and chemical engineers who work on battery cells and researching new and advanced technologies, assembly workers who create the battery packs, and workers for installation, maintenance, management and integration. Throughout the field, there is a large variance of training and education required.
For example, Werner Electric employs a small but mighty clean storage team including a master electrician and an electrician who worked previously in the solar industry. They also employ a lead engineer who worked previously in the solar industry and an advanced degree engineer in energy storage. Rounding out their team is a NABCEP Certified employee who worked his way up after starting in Werner’s warehouse, then moving to sales and field work and finally getting certified for work on this team.
Smart Grid Workers in Minnesota
The 244 Minnesotans working in this sector are improving the grid system to incorporate more renewable energy. The “smart grid” is one that offers two-way communication from a utility to the rate-payer and back allowing both to optimize electricity demand and allow large-scale renewable energy sources into the energy grid.
Similar to energy storage, there are a number of different opportunities within the smart grid sector. Engineers and electricians work in this space to develop new technologies like smart meters, high voltage transmission lines, sensors and transformers, but there are many supporting roles needed as well. Communications, marketing and sales professionals are needed to design, implement and sell these technologies to the public. There are also individuals needed to manufacture and install products designed to modernize the grid.
Modernizing the grid is becoming more and more important as more commercial and industrial businesses are looking to incorporate clean energy into their business. Businesses in Minnesota have an added worry about the availability of solar hours, so being able to tie into the grid as a backup is a huge comfort factor as a safety net if power goes down. This allows them to tap into the cost savings of clean energy with a backup so they do not fear critical equipment going down in the event of low solar or wind availability.
Micro and Other Grid Workers in Minnesota
In 2019, there were 707 Minnesotans who fall into the category of micro grid or other grid worker in the state. These employees work in similar fields to smart grid, but they focus on localized grids that can disconnect from the main grid to operate on its own power source and help in the case of a large power outage. An ideal case for microgrids is emergency response buildings, like hospitals. If there is a large power outage, hospitals would be able to run on their own power source. This way, they would not rely on the entire grid being restored before they could restore power to critical units and machines.
The future of advanced grid and energy storage jobs
“There is a huge opportunity to get jobs going this year through working with developers and the utilities to accelerate approvals of new projects. Doing so would speed the building of those projects which increases jobs and lowers costs.” says Julian White of Nokomis Energy.
Xcel Energy has committed to spending $3 billion on new projects in response to a request by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to boost Minnesota’s economy as it starts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
No one can predict the future, but if we could, we would say these jobs will be booming in the next few years as more and more companies realize the cost saving benefits of incorporating clean energy into their mix. Residential consumers are also realizing the power of new energy technologies like smart thermostats, A/C control, and more efficient appliances that typically use a large amount of energy, like water heaters.
White also tells us, “There are cool opportunities opening up everywhere - across the state and the Upper Midwest. There is a desire to accelerate the clean energy transition and we are excited to help support what could be a huge job creator and a cost optimization opportunity.”