ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

All this week, we've been looking at the state of the electrical grid and also at the need to build a smarter grid if renewable energy is to take off. Right now, a lot of people in the utility business are worried about what they say is the most vulnerable part of the power system: the workforce.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports that a wave of retirements is depleting the supply of craftsmen who keep the lights on.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The room is full at this class on power production and operation at Centralia College in Centralia, Washington. Instructor Rulon Crawford says students are rushing to take advantage of a jump in the number of power-related jobs.

Mr. RULON CRAWFORD (Instructor, Power Production and Operation, Centralia College): Many people that went to work in the electric power industry were there for 25, 30 and 40 years. Now that they are leaving the industry, there's a ton of opportunity for this generation that's coming along.

ABRAMSON: The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers says nearly half its members nationwide are up for retirement in the next few years. In response, Centralia has formed a Center for Excellence to train young workers, like 19-year-old Haley Keithan.

Ms. HALEY KEITHAN (Student): I want to go into more renewable resources, more so than coal or oil or anything like that.

ABRAMSON: You hear that a lot up here, even though there is a coal-fire plant just down the road. Like many states, Oregon and Washington require that local utilities boost the portion of power they produce from renewables. Travel up the Columbia River, which has long supplied this area with cheap electrical power, and you can see and hear what's luring students into the energy field.

(Soundbite of strong winds)

ABRAMSON: Wind turbines seem to be sprouting from every hilltop. If you get close, you can hear them spinning lazily in a light wind. This is what's drawing students to Columbia Gorge Community College, on the Oregon side of the river.

Mr. A.J. QUACKENBUSH (Student, Columbia Gorge Community College): My name is A.J. Quackenbush.

ABRAMSON: A.J. is a muscular, curly-headed student in the renewable energy technology program here. Students like A.J. may be keen on renewables, but this program is meant to prepare them to work on the aging transmission grid as well. A.J. knows he might well end up expanding the system that connects those hilltop turbines to power-hungry cities.

Mr. QUACKENBUSH: I think that right now, my backup thoughts are actually leaning more towards transmission. I know there's been a lot of talk about installing a transmission superhighway, and I think that having the opportunity to work on something like that would be pretty fulfilling as well.

ABRAMSON: Local utilities here say they already find themselves producing more wind power at times than the electrical grid can handle. Instructor Alan Bailey says as the grid is modernized, his students will have to come back to school to update their skills.

Mr. ALAN BAILEY (Instructor, Columbia Gorge Community College): If we don't do something in that aspect to get transmission out there in the way that it should be taken out there, with the computers and whatever it happens to be, we're going to be dead in the water in a very short time.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay. Now we're going to have fun, ain't we?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Two apprentice linemen have just made their first mistake as they try to replace a huge, glass insulator, 30 feet up on a utility pole. This is the Bonneville Power Administration's Technical Training Center in Vancouver, Washington. Down below, instructor Craig Froh razzes them.

Mr. CRAIG FROH (Instructor, Bonneville Power Administration's Technical Training Center, Washington): We are, today, practicing live line maintenance.

ABRAMSON: In real life, the wires these guys are working on would be live with 115,000 volts. Workers spend three to four years working as paid apprentices before they become journeymen, going through a ritual that dates back many decades. This is why people here refer to this business as a craft. While it doesn't require a college degree, it is both dangerous and very arcane.

(Soundbite of bells)

ABRAMSON: This training facility at Bonneville is meant to replicate a real working sub station that 31-year-old apprentice Zack Banks has to decipher a roomful of dials and get the juice flowing again during an imaginary blackout.

Mr. ZACK BANKS (Student): Like all my 230 KD breakers are all standing open and flashing, which means they've been tripped by relay action.

ABRAMSON: With its old-style dials and clicking alarms, this place looks a lot more like a World War II-era submarine than a key node on the power system. Banks dials up the trainer in the exercise, using a rotary telephone.

ABRAMSON: Bonneville hopes build a smart grid for this region. And some day, workers here may face more modern technology. But for now, the next generation of electrical workers will have to get started on some very 20th century gear.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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