Certification Program Aims to Close Skills Gap in Renewable Energy

The program will be based on the popular IEEE distributed energy resources interconnection standard

3 min read
Illustration of an engineer doing diagnostics related to electricity, power supply and the grid.
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTE Heavier reliance on renewables and other distributed energy resources (DERs) is central to the world’s ongoing evolution toward a more environmentally friendly and reliable energy landscape. Achieving consistent, high-quality assessments of the interconnections of DERs with electricity grids is an important step. But there’s a hurdle to making it a reality: not enough skilled workers.

That’s why the IEEE Standards Association’s Conformity Assessment Program is working with several utilities on the IEEE 1547 Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Interconnection: Education and Credentialing Program. Partners are Baltimore Gas and Electric, Commonwealth Edison, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Orange and Rockland Utilities.

“We are excited to work with IEEE and the other partners in creating a program that will satisfy the industry need for a qualified workforce…to support ongoing growth of renewables and other DERs around the world,” Joseph Woomer, Dominion’s vice president of grid and technical solutions, said in a news release about the program.

INTERCONNECTION ISSUES

Both commercial and residential installations of battery, combined heat and power, solar, wind, and other DERs are on the rise globally. But various complexities around commissioning the interconnections with the electricity grid have blunted progress.

One challenge is the severe shortage of qualified, credentialed workers to perform the commissioning tasks, especially in developing economies. Also, utilities, DER developers, and owners frequently do not share a common understanding of the requirements and needs—which can lead to missteps, delays, and additional costs.

At the same time, DER vendors are being pressured to roll out new features and capabilities that meet the needs of different implementations in various regions. Utilities are now being pushed more than ever to evaluate and process higher volumes of DER-interconnection applications. And regulators are struggling to keep their jurisdictions’ interconnection rules in line with technology innovations and other industry developments.

ROOTED IN STANDARDS

The credentialing program will be based on the widely adopted IEEE 1547-2018 Standard for Interconnection and Interoperability of Distributed Energy Resources With Associated Electric Power Systems Interfaces, as well as the IEEE 1547.1-2020 Standard Conformance Test Procedures for Equipment Interconnecting Distributed Energy Resources With Electric Power Systems and Associated Interfaces.

IEEE 1547 defines technical specifications for interconnection and interoperability between electric power systems and DERs of every type. Since its development in 2003, the standard has been cited in energy legislation, regulatory deliberations, and utility engineering and business practices in markets around the world. One such example is in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, which references IEEE 1547 explicitly.

As DER deployment has grown exponentially in the years since IEEE 1547’s initial publication, the standard has been refined to address emerging implementation challenges. Its 2018 update addresses numerous changes related to the increased levels of solar arrays and other DERs on the grid. The U.S. National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners passed a resolution last year recommending state public utility commissions and other member regulatory agencies engage stakeholders to adopt IEEE 1547-2018.

The new education and credentialing program being rolled out is designed to address DER interconnection. It is intended to enable training and certification of the standards-based commissioning process for installed DER interconnections.

“Working with the IEEE Standards Association and the other utilities signed on to this effort is an important step to standardizing a safe and reliable approach to integrating more distributed resources on the system,” Wesley O. Davis said in the news release. He is Duke’s director of DER technical standards, enterprise strategy, and planning.

Get Involved

To join in the collaborative effort, email connect_der@ieee.org.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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