Powering the Human Habitat

Powering the Human Habitat

Energy, green or not, we have to have energy. We’ve made a Faustian bargain in building this system of our world, and there’s no looking back.

I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun's energy... If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.--- Sir George Porter

What is the “Human Habitat”? We have grown to think of our world as separate, apart from the world of all other living things, but now we realize, (hopefully not too late), that there is only one habitat. All life forms on earth must share the space we live in.

Artificial energy is the drug of our world. It’s fed into our homes, our cars, our offices, our machines.

Power can be defined as molecules or atoms in motion. This energy motion is fed through our inert machines, to animate them, to drive them as slave to our purposes— and our purposes come in many forms, from wasteful-silly to life-essential.

Our current lives would be impossible without energy, unless we marched straight back in to the Stone Age. And even if we did, very soon we would have burned all the trees in our campfires, and our world be soon become very raw and very cold. But we would still have our landfills full of plastic bags and old desktops. And the sun would still shine.

Mostly, we love our cars. Our guilt trip over big oil spills typically vanishes, when we get behind the wheel and step on the gas, and are transported, like a flight of magic.
The simple act of walking into a restroom, turning on the light, and washing your hands, uses the products of perhaps four different utilities. Electricity powers the light, water supply systems provide water for washing, wastewater treatment plants treat the sewage, and natural gas or electricity heats the water.

The utilities sector is comprised of three distinctly different industries— Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution.

power plants

Electric plants harness highly pressurized steam, flowing water, or some force of nature to spin the blades of a turbine, which is attached to an electric generator. Coal is the dominant fuel used to generate steam in electric power plants, followed by nuclear power, natural gas, petroleum, and other energy sources.

Hydroelectric generators are powered by the release of the tremendous pressure of water existing at the bottom of a dam or near a waterfall. Renewable sources of electric power—including geothermal, wind, and solar energy—are expanding rapidly, but only make up a small percentage of total generation.

Of course, there is Nuclear energy. We fear it most, with horrific examples like Chernobyl, but coal-fired plants worldwide produce by far the most harm to our environment.

Legislative changes and industry competition have created new classes of firms that generate and sell electricity. Some industrial plants have their own electricity-generating facilities, capable of producing more power than they require. Those that sell their excess power to utilities or to other industrial plants are called non-utility generators (NUGs).

Independent power producers are a type of NUG that are electricity-generating plants designed to take advantage of both industry deregulation and the latest generating technology to compete directly with utilities for industrial and other wholesale customers.

Transmission lines supported by huge towers connect generating plants with industrial customers and substations. At substations, the electricity’s voltage is reduced and made available for household and small business use via distribution lines, which usually are carried by telephone poles.

Natural gas, a clear odorless gas, is found underground, often near or associated with crude oil reserves. Exploration and extraction of natural gas is part of the oil and gas extraction industry, covered elsewhere in the Career Guide to Industries. Once found and brought to the surface, it is transported throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico by gas transmission companies using pressurized pipelines.

Local distribution companies take natural gas from the pipeline, depressurize it, add its odor, and operate the system that delivers the gas from transmission pipelines to industrial, residential, and commercial customers. Industrial customers, such as chemical and paper manufacturing firms, account for almost a third of natural gas consumption.

Electric power plants, residential customers who use gas for heating and cooking, and commercial businesses—such as hospitals and restaurants—account for most of the remaining consumption.

Utilities (and the services they provide) are so vital to everyday life that they are considered public goods, and are typically heavily regulated. The various segments of the utilities industry vary in the degree to which their workers are involved in production activities, administration and management, or research and development.

Panel full of switches

Electric utilities generally operate larger plants using very expensive, high technology equipment, and thus employ more professional and technical personnel.

Such professionals usually have degrees in engineering or management, or both.

In 2005, Congress passed a new Energy Policy Act, which is the first major legislation on energy since 1992. This will be a major force in the industry through 2016. It was designed to promote conservation and use of cleaner technologies in energy production through higher efficiency standards and tax credits. It is expected that several new power plants will be built as a result of this legislation, including new clean-burning coal and nuclear facilities.

Electricity, gas, and water are used continuously throughout each day. As a result, split, weekend, and night shifts are common for utility workers. The average workweek for production workers in utilities was 41.4 hours in 2006, compared with 33.4 hours for all trade, transportation, and utilities industries, and 33.9 hours for all private industries. Employees often must work overtime to accommodate peaks in demand and to repair damage caused by storms, cold weather, accidents, and other occurrences. The industry employs relatively few part-time workers.

About 226,000 jobs—approximately 41 percent of all wage and salary jobs in the utilities industry—were in production or installation, maintenance, and repair occupations in 2006. About 21 percent of jobs were in office and administrative support occupations; 14 percent were in professional and related occupations; and 12 percent were in management, business, and financial occupations. The remaining jobs were in construction, transportation, sales, and service occupations.

Production and installation, maintenance, and repair personnel install and maintain pipelines and powerlines, operate and fix plant machinery, and monitor treatment processes. For example, electrical powerline installers and repairers install and repair cables or wires used in electrical power or distribution systems. They install insulators, wooden poles, transformers, and light- or heavy-duty transmission towers. First-line supervisors and managers directly supervise and coordinate the activities of production and repair workers. These supervisors coordinate workload and work assignments and help to ensure a safe and productive work environment.

Production occupations include power plant operators, power distributors and dispatchers, and water and liquid waste treatment plant operators.

Power plant operators control or operate machinery, such as stream-driven turbine generators, to generate electric power, often using control boards or semi-automatic equipment. Power distributors and dispatchers coordinate, regulate, or distribute electricity or steam in generating stations, over transmission lines to substations, and over electric power lines.

Industrial machinery mechanics install, repair, and maintain machinery in power generating stations, gas plants, and water treatment plants. They repair and maintain the mechanical components of generators, waterwheels, water-inlet controls, and piping in generating stations; steam boilers, condensers, pumps, compressors, and similar equipment in gas manufacturing plants; and equipment used to process and distribute water for public and industrial uses.

General maintenance and repair workers perform work involving a variety of maintenance skills to keep machines, mechanical equipment, and the structure of an establishment in repair. Generally found in small establishments, these workers have duties that may involve pipefitting, boilermaking, electrical work, carpentry, welding, and installing new equipment.

Professional and related occupations in this industry include engineers and computer specialists. Degrees are a basic requirement for this higher level.

Engineers develop technologies that allow, for example, utilities to produce and transmit gas and electricity more efficiently and water more cleanly. They also may develop improved methods of landfill or wastewater treatment operations in order to maintain compliance with government regulations.

Computer specialists develop computer systems to automate utility processes; provide plant simulators for operator training; and improve operator decision making.

Engineering technicians assist engineers in research activities and may conduct some research independently.

Managers and administrators in the utilities industry plan, organize, direct, and coordinate management activities. They often are responsible for maintaining an adequate supply of electricity, gas, water, steam, or sanitation service.

Utilities provide career opportunities for persons with varying levels of experience and education. However, because the utilities industry consists of many different companies and products, skills developed in one segment of the industry may not be transferable to other segments.

High school graduates qualify for many entry-level production jobs. In some cases, however, safety and security regulations require higher standards for employment, such as documented proof of the skills and abilities necessary to complete the work.

As a result, a degree from a college, university, or technical school is often required.

Substantial advancement is possible even within a single occupation. For example, power plant operators may move up through several levels of responsibility until they reach the highest paying operator jobs.

Advancement in production occupations generally requires mastery of advanced skills on the job— usually with some formal training provided by the employer or through additional vocational training at a 2-year technical college or trade school.

Most computer, engineering, and technician jobs require technical education after high school, although opportunities exist for persons with degrees ranging from an associate degree to a doctorate. These workers are usually familiar with company objectives and production methods which, combined with college education, equip them with many of the tools necessary for advancement to top management positions.

Graduates of 2-year technical institutes usually fill technician positions. Sometimes, graduates of engineering programs will start as technicians until an opportunity to advance into an engineering position arises.

Managerial jobs generally require a 4-year college degree, although a 2-year technical degree may be sufficient in smaller plants. Managers usually can advance into higher level management jobs without additional formal training outside the workplace.

traffic jam with lots of cars

Electric power, natural gas and water continue to be essential to everyday life. However, employment declines overall could result from the retirement of much of the industry’s workforce. These positions may be replaced by new engineers, managers, and workers, at a more efficient rate. While utilities are doing what they can to replace these workers, the wide variety of careers open to people with technical skills will make it difficult for companies to find enough applicants to fill these openings.

For all these reasons, job prospects for qualified applicants entering the utilities industry are expected to be excellent during the next 10 years.

As of 2006, about 55 percent of the utilities industry workforce is over the age of 45. Many of these workers will either retire or prepare to retire within the next 10 years. Because on-the-job training is very intensive in many utilities industry occupations, preparing a new workforce will be one of the industry’s highest priorities during the next decade.

Employment of wage and salary workers in utilities by occupation, 2006 and projected change

Computer systems analysts and network systems and data communications analysts are expected to be among the fastest growing occupations in the professional and related occupations group, as plants emphasize automation and productivity.

Some office and administrative support workers, such as utilities meter readers and bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks, are among those adversely affected by increasing automation and outsourcing. Technologies including radio-transmitted meter reading and computerized billing procedures are expected to decrease employment.

New technologies will create jobs for highly skilled technical personnel (with the education and experience to take advantage of these developments in electric utilities).

Overall, production workers in the utilities industry had average weekly earnings of $27.42 in 2006. Earnings varied by industry segment within utilities.

Earnings in utilities were generally higher than earnings in other industries. The hourly earnings for production workers in utilities averaged $27.42 in 2006, compared with $16.76 in all private industry. This was due in part to more overtime and weekend work, as utility plant operations must be monitored 24 hours a day.

Who qualifies? Persons with college training or advanced technical education will have the best opportunities.

What do they need? Specialized education is essential. Skills developed in one segment of the industry may not be transferable to other segments, because the utilities industry consists of many different companies and products.

Is it worth it? Earnings for production workers are significantly higher than in most other industries.

And what about the future? Almost half of the utilities workforce will be nearing retirement age within the next 10 years, resulting in excellent opportunities for qualified entrants.

Global warming and weirdness has got our attention, at last. Energy companies and governments are finally trying to pay more than lip service to the enormity of the problem, radical weather shifts that could destroy life on earth.

And yet, we must have power. Could solar power save us? Tidal power? Wind power? Combined with reducing our fossil-fuel demands?

If such alternate energy sources were weapons of war, we would already have them in use. 57% of the U.S. budget is spent on “defense”.

If you choose a career in the field of energy, you may become a pioneer of the new way of powering the human habitat, without further destroying the global habitat.

The future is yours, to win or lose. Get the degree than will empower your ability not help improve our world.

Invest yourself in the knowledge that will make change— not from the outside, as a mere observer— but from inside the power industry itself!

General information on employment in the utilities industry is available from local utilities and:

  • Center for Energy Workforce Development, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20004-2696. http://www.cewd.org

Information on employment in electric power generation and distribution is available from:

  • American Public Power Association, 2301 M St. NW, Washington, DC 20037-1484. http://www.appanet.org
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 900 7th St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

Information on employment in natural gas transmission and distribution is available from:

  • American Public Gas Association, 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Suite C-4, Washington, DC 20002. http://www.apga.org

Information on employment in water and wastewater treatment is available from:

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