December 2015

Educating for Our Electricity Future


Christian E. Casillas


Imagine walking into your home, which has a rooftop covered with grid-connected solar panels and battery storage in your garage. Now, imagine that during different times of the day, you receive messages from your smart electric meter, alerting you to the purchase of some of your stored energy or warning you to delay using your dishwasher until later at night, when electricity prices will be cheaper. We need to look only as far as the community of Los Alamos, New Mexico, to see similar energy-management models in action. Los Alamos, which has a municipally owned utility, has been participating in a joint project between the United States and Japan to explore advances in smart-grid and microgrid-technology and energy-management practices. About 1,600 households currently have smart meters, and some subset of them receive discounts for deferring their heavy electricity usage to off-peak times.

The evolution of sophisticated yet affordable monitoring and control technology may be the biggest enabler for increased utilization of renewable energy, more efficient delivery and use of electricity and increased reliability. The goal of a smarter grid is to reduce the operational costs and increase efficiency and reliability by introducing devices that improve the flow of information, allowing more informed and faster decisions. At customer nodes, programmable domestic appliances that respond to price signals are already on the market. Similar to the program at Los Alamos, it is estimated that close to 40 percent of residential electricity customers in the U.S. will be connected to smart meters by the end of 2015, allowing for two-way communication and real-time pricing information.

The continued evolution of a smarter grid in the U.S. will parallel and complement the development of microgrids, which are small-scale versions of the centralized electric grid, typically having their own generation, distribution networks and energy storage. Microgrids are especially attractive for increasing reliability of electricity service, being able to quickly disconnect from the grid and continue operating in the face of grid instabilities catalyzed by weather, operation error or sabotage.

Understanding the advanced technology and a need to analyze and manage large information streams will require new skill sets for employees working in energy industries. Analyses of a changing workforce emphasize a need for new employees to have basic understandings of power systems, database management, cyber security, environmental regulations and changing business models. The demand for diverse skill sets will be magnified in the microgrid sector, where employees will be exposed to many more aspects of an electricity system than in a large utility. Twenty years ago, an electrical engineer would need a specific set of power-engineering skills, while in a microgrid system a handful of employees may be involved with aspects of technical, economic, security and environmental management tasks.

Santa Fe Community College (SFCC), in collaboration with the Microgrid Systems Laboratory and with financial support from Santa Fe County’s Economic Development Division, is currently developing curriculum for a Smart-Grid and Microgrid Education Program, which will be the first in the state. The goal is to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of our existing electricity system, drivers causing its transformation, and critical knowledge needed for the design and management of technologically advanced power systems. What is most exciting about the program is that it will be evolving in parallel with supportive “smart” infrastructure on campus. SFCC’s goal is to quickly transform its main campus to function as an advanced microgrid, with aspects of generation, monitoring and control designed to facilitate student interaction and learning.

A class in Green Technologies will be taught this spring, and smart-grid and microgrid concentrations will be offered in three Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees in the fall of 2016. For example, a student planning to get an AAS in computer and information technology or solar technologies will be able to do so while gaining additional skills with a concentration in smart grids and microgrids. Classes that will be part of the concentrations will include Power Generation, Distribution, and Transmission, Smart Energy Management Systems, Electronic Fundamentals, Computer and Security Fundamentals, and Instrumentation and Control Lab.

As the program evolves, SFCC will work to connect graduates with employment opportunities in the city, county and region that will allow them to contribute to an advancing, greener electricity sector. For more information about the program, contact School of Trades, Technology, Sustainability and Professional Studies. Steve Gómez, chairperson, can be reached at


Christian E. Casillas, Ph.D., is a Santa Fe native who has been leading the curriculum development for the Smart Grid and Microgrid program. Casillas also serves on the city’s Sustainable Santa Fe Commission and on a working group for the mayor’s Climate Action Task Force.




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