The US Smart Grid: Jobs through Innovation

By Dorothy Davis

The evolving US Smart Grid is generating a lot of buzz – and rightly so. The move to a smarter power delivery system will transform the electric power industry from a primarily centralized, producer-controlled network to an advanced interactive model that promises to vastly improve efficiency and integration, all while raising profits and keeping costs competitive.

The Smart Grid will also serve to change and expand the industry’s working relationships with its stakeholders. The integration of advanced Information Technology will pave the way to explore new business and create a broader spectrum of employment opportunities as new skill sets become pivotal to success.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) recognizing the inherent economic, environmental and efficiency value of a Smart Gid, has already awarded $3.4 billion in federal stimulus grants toward its implementation.

Of those grants, the DOE designated $25 million specifically toward investments that will help expand the manufacturing base of companies that can produce smart grid systems. According to the DOE, that funding will help to create tens of thousands of jobs across the country. These jobs include high-paying career opportunities for smart meter manufacturing workers; engineering technicians, electricians and equipment installers; IT system designers and cyber security specialists; and many others.

As a part of its expansive ongoing research into the impact of low carbon technologies, Duke University’s Center for Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness (CGGC) recently released a comprehensive report outlining the effects of the developing Smart Grid on the US job market with some very promising results.

This recent Smart Grid research from Duke shines a spotlight on the growing potential of this advanced energy sector and the job opportunities it presents within the US.

Duke’s report titled, “US Smart Grid: Finding New Ways to Cut Carbon and Create Jobs,” puts a focus on identifying regions in the US that are already developing or manufacturing products for a Smart Grid. The report also outlines how building the Smart Grid promises to not only assist in reducing carbon emissions, but also stimulate technological innovations and create a significant number of US jobs.

Senior CGGC research analyst and lead author on the US Smart Grid report for Duke University, Marcy Lowe writes:

“Concentrated local and regional efforts can leverage important partnerships in which R&D is directly connected to new product development, commercialization, new business incubation, and workforce development. Such efforts are needed if the smart grid is to deliver on its considerable promise to reduce CO2, stimulate technology innovation, and create jobs.”

The Duke team studied 125 leading US Smart Grid firms to assess their potential role in creating jobs. The report was able to identify 334 relevant US employee locations across 39 states and reveals that current levels of investment by the US supplier segment alone has created approximately 17,000 domestic jobs so far.

Marcy Lowe summarizes six of the report’s most central findings: 

1) Our sample identifies 334 relevant US employee locations spread across 39 states. These include 70 sites for hardware manufacturing, 76 for hardware development, 63 for software development and services, and 125 company headquarters. Based on levels of investment to date, we estimate that the US supplier segment alone — which does not include utility jobs — has so far created roughly 17,000 US jobs.

2) Smart grid provides a way for well-established firms to transition from traditional products into new areas, including new manufacturing opportunities. For decades, a number of US firms provided equipment for the power industry, but performed the manufacturing increasingly outside the US. Many of these firms are now transforming from a device-only focus to new products including software, smart controls and communications. These new activities are largely performed domestically.

3) The fast-growing global market for smart grid technologies presents valuable export opportunities for US firms, large and small. Smart grid, renewable energy and electric vehicles are counted among the most promising sectors for increasing exports in the National Export Initiative – the federal government’s goal, announced in 2010, of doubling the nation’s exports in five years. Industry leaders such as Cisco, GE, Hewlett Packard and IBM are moving quickly into China’s smart grid market. Much smaller US firms have also won large contracts in China and Europe.

4) Future US job creation by vendors will likely concentrate in high-value IT innovations, product development and systems design and engineering. Many of the world’s leading smart grid vendor firms are either headquartered in the United States or have an extensive US presence. A number of large and small US firms are also pursuing breakthrough innovations in hardware – especially those associated with renewable power, energy storage or electric vehicles. These activities are often performed in domestic facilities to protect intellectual property.

5) Others are catching up quickly, so the United States will need to continue emphasizing not just innovation but also supportive policies. Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Indian firms have reached US levels or surpassed them in selected innovative technologies, such as high-voltage transmission. Perhaps more important, several countries’ smart grid goals reflect energy policies not currently emphasized in the United States, including aggressive targets for renewable energy. Similarly ambitious targets in the United States would increase demand for US smart grid firms’ products and encourage investment in related clean-tech innovations.

6) Regardless of where smart grid products are made, many additional U.S. smart grid jobs will be located in the service territories of participating utilities, which means they cannot be off-shored. These will include jobs not covered in this study, such as direct employment with utilities, contractors and temporary field offices, engaged in performing construction, installation, maintenance and ongoing services. By definition, these will be local jobs.

Marcy Lowe is a senior research analyst at the Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness at Duke University. Her research applies a global value chain framework to analyzing US job growth and technology leadership in clean energy in the new, carbon-constrained global economy.

Access the full US Smart Grid: Finding New Ways to Cut Carbon and Create Jobs report and other timely research at the CGGC website:

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