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The Dynamic Nature of Training for Control Room Operators in the Future

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In The Future of the Professions, Richard and Daniel Susskind (2015) identify radical change coming in the way we work, with two possible futures. The first future is familiar and has been in use for ages –professionals will streamline old ways of working. The second future argues that professionals will transform work with increasingly capable machines involved. 

Control room operations are increasingly disruptive. It’s a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment (Cousins, 2018). VUCA is a term from the U.S. Army that sums up a time of change and new reality, thus demanding adoption of an ever-changing culture. System Operations and the training that supports it must adapt structures and practices to match the pace of environmental change.

The volatile operating environment includes constant large-scale change, without predictable patterns (Bennett and Lemoine, 2014). Relying on our current System Operator level and type of expertise and routines is not enough for system security and reliability, as our complex system becomes more tightly coupled and technology is increasingly complex and risky. Therefore, training allows the System Operators to gain relevant information that can help mitigate uncertainty and increase security of our nation’s transmission system.

SOS recommends a training focus on based on adaptability, through programs for System Operators that are proactive for learning new knowledge to innovate and make better Control Room Operations decisions. Broader skills-sets and tools that equip operators to think and act more quickly and fully are essential.  These skill-sets and tools would allow the System Operator to recognize and respond to emerging conditions.

From a strategic point of view, System Operator training has evolved from two perspectives: (1) the compliance perspective grounded in mandatory operating standards and particularly the NERC PER Standards; and (2) the closed systems approach from the nuclear power industry brought about as a result of the Three Mile Island incident. The purpose of training is to improve performance on the job. As NERC Standards evolve, the compliance approach is shifting toward using proactive risk-based methodologies, in lieu of “malicious compliance” where organizations and System Operators work toward checking all the boxes.  Compliance should be an outcome of a quality systematic training program.  The grid is essentially an open system with increasing interdependency amongst the transmission systems on the grid and the electrical/natural gas system.  Also, on the electrical system, there is a continuing evolution of generation sources at both the transmission and distribution levels, recognized as distributed generation resources which includes battery, solar, and wind.  

In the past, there was a push for open access transmission, which evolved over about twenty years. That same push is happening now for open access on the distribution grid. Society will likely demand that distribution open access is accomplished more quickly than twenty years. Demand for speed and urgency will likely bring unbearable pressures on the security and reliability of System Operations, unless there is focused attention on the tools and training to support the expected levels of performance.

Training must evolve to adhere to open systems characteristics and features such as holism; control and feedback loops; design principles including flow (e.g., Kast & Rosenzweig, 1985; Womack & Jones, 1996) in order to improve System Operator performance. In the past, training has been planned and carried out in functional silos, with separate programs and training events for Distribution, Transmission, Power Plant, and Natural Gas. This will not sustain grid performance. Our future reality is renewables, which have the adverse impact of increasing Transmission and Distribution supply variability on the grid. In the distribution function, sometimes System Operations control rooms do not know where these resources are installed. Unlike transmission, distribution-level residential rooftops, commercial facilities, and parking lots are not required to be registered or be under the control of the local utility. Thousands of variable megawatts are impacting the grid each hour of the day. More and more smart devices are expected, and big data analytics with associated training will be needed for Control Room Operations, in order to maintain system reliability and security.

Given the local climate of concern, physical and cybersecurity pose challenges for system reliability. A cross-functional, robust, and powerful training experience to build System Operator expertise is essential to meet these challenges.

As we speak, experts have and continue to prepare for leading-edge training solutions. These solutions enhance training through worldwide cyber and physical security specialization. Transmission, Distribution, and Power Plant simulation for cybersecurity training is available now. Gas Pipeline cybersecurity simulation is currently well underway. As part of the platform, the Distribution Simulator, Power Plant Simulator, and Gas Pipeline Simulator are separate tools, and are subsumed in the Transmission Simulator. This technology will be portable across training locations around the world. It will simply require laptop computers for students and instructors/facilitators.

This leading edge training will likely be centered on three items of primary importance: (1) changes in the population of the industry; (2) changes in the technology supporting control room and training activities; and finally (3) enhancing the ability of the operator to recognize and react in real-time to address emergency and abnormal conditions including cyber and physical intrusion into the power system.  These changes will impact the processes of organizations as well as their training programs and will encompass organizational level improvement and training program maturity.  Training improvement, in conjunction with human performance improvement, can provide organizations with methods for sustainability heading into the future of training for control room personnel. 

The changing population of control room operators is driving the changes in current training practices to include shorter training topics, as well as better integration of technology into the training.  Technology improvements include the use of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and visualization.  These new technologies must be evidence-based in order to help System Operators with situational awareness and decision making. In the future, training will need to include strategies and methods to reduce intellectual debt. These new technologies will need to be secured from cyber and physical security intrusion, as a part of and aligned with the System Operations function.

We have all witnessed cyber and physical security as the cornerstone of many present-day initiatives to secure the power system and the systems that support it.  Enhancing the ability of the system operators to recognize when security breaches of cyber and/or physical assets occur is important to security the power system, since system operators are monitoring the grid 24/7.  Simulation is effective for training related to cyber and physical security on the integrated power system.  Expect simulator scenarios to be driven from a single simulator platform that integrates the generation, transmission and the distribution systems. This allows each of the power system functions to see the impact to their functions independently and allows an integrated approach to the training.  The future of cyber and physical security will drive an additional layer of operator interactions, which will need to be “human-factored” to ensure the operator is able to perform the functions necessary to isolate events.  This is the environment driving initiatives and methods for integrating improvements into the organizations and training programs.

Continuous improvements in Control Room operations will be enhanced through maturity of the training programs and human performance/human factors initiatives.  By driving the improvements at the organizational and training program levels, we can achieve sustainable programs designed to give operators the skills, knowledge, tools, agile methods, and information to ensure reliable power systems of the future.

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Bennett N. & Lemoine, J.G (2014). What a difference a word makes: Understanding threats toperformance in a VUCA world. Business Horizons, 57(3), 311-317.  

Cousins, B. (2018). Design thinking: Organizational learning in VUCA environments.

Academy of Strategic Management Journal, 17(2), 1-18.

Kast, F., & Rosenzweig, J. (1985). Organization and management. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Susskind, R. & Susskind, D. (2017). The future of the professions how technology will transformthe work of human experts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Womack, J. & Jones, D. (1996). Lean thinking. London: Simon and Schuster.

 

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 27, 2019

As we speak, experts have and continue to prepare for leading-edge training solutions. These solutions enhance training through worldwide cyber and physical security specialization. Transmission, Distribution, and Power Plant simulation for cybersecurity training is available now. Gas Pipeline cybersecurity simulation is currently well underway. As part of the platform, the Distribution Simulator, Power Plant Simulator, and Gas Pipeline Simulator are separate tools, and are subsumed in the Transmission Simulator. This technology will be portable across training locations around the world. It will simply require laptop computers for students and instructors/facilitators.

This is a time of change for sure in the industry. You mention specialization here-- do you think the end result will be more workers needed each with highly specialized roles, or will the existing jobs simply require greater levels of training and understanding of a wide variety of specialized tasks? 

Melissa Sease's picture
Melissa Sease on Sep 30, 2019

Great question, Matt. 

We believe the response to specialization will vary among organizations. Some of our clients work toward strategies that enable Operators to rotate between roles. These organizations strive for breadth of capabilities. Other organizations seek more specialization and depth.

There are many drivers for these differences. For example, organization of business units and whether the positions are unionized. We believe organizations need to respond and implement according to varying situations because evidence suggests these strategic approaches will continue to vary quite a bit. One thing is for sure, every operating position has increasing and more complex data to deal with routinely. No matter how organizations are structured, this onslaught of complex big data will require advanced training techniques.

Melissa Sease's picture

Thank Melissa for the Post!

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