Consulting engineers and construction contractors alike are looking forward to participating in the single-largest investment ever for modernizing the U.S. electric grid. The $3.4 billion of grant awards announced late last month by President Obama will be matched by utilities in 49 states for a total of $8.2 billion to install “Smart Grid” technologies. The Energy Dept. hopes that investment will put the country on a path to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and shave more than 1,400 MW off peak power demand.

On the long-heralded Smart Grid, customers and electricity providers will be linked by communication infrastructure that will allow the electrical system’s operators to closely manage demand and supply. Sensors, called phasor measurement units (PMUs), are “a technology that DOE is very interested in testing,” says Steve Stolze, managing director for Black & Veatch Enterprise Management Solutions, Hauppauge, N.Y.

DOE says more than 850 PMUs covering 100% of the grid will be installed under this program to enable better monitoring of grid conditions and prevent cascading power outages. Almost 700 automated substations also will be installed, allowing power utilities to respond faster and more effectively to restore service when outages do occur. “The grids have to be analyzed for the optimum placement of these units, they then have to be installed, the networks to control them and communicate with them have to be built, the systems on grid operation have to be integrated with the new measurement units, and the new network that would be involved to control those,” says Stolze. “That is quite a lot of work.”

Progress Energy, Raleigh, N.C., was one of only six utilities in the country to receive a $200-million grant award. The utility will leverage the award to fund its $520-million modernization, which was already two years into a five-year schedule. The program was begun in the Carolinas and will expand into Florida to upgrade direct-load control switches and commercial automatic metering infrastructure, says Becky Harrison, Smart Grid program director. There will be extensive construction work, including wire-pulling, new telecommunications fiber optics, upgrading analog substation controls to digital, upgrading the supervisory-control and data-acquisition (SCADA) system and installing distribution management systems. However, “we have not done a full resource plan to determine” how much of the work will be contracted out, Harrison says.

Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C., also is not yet ready to say how much work there will be for engineers and contractors, but “it will be a very high percentage of the resources that we will use to actually do the in-field installations,” says Mark Wyatt, vice president of Smart Grid and energy systems. Duke’s $200-million stimulus grant will leverage a program estimated at $851.7 million.

“We will be deploying large numbers of meters, large numbers of communications devices, large numbers of distribution automation infrastructures, and by the very nature of that, we will have a full staff of folks that will manage the program on the Duke Energy side,” Wyatt says. “But we plan to leverage extensively third-party entities like engineering firms and construction and operations groups to round out the balance of the additional workforce that we need to meet the deployment schedule.”

DOE now is negotiating terms with the award recipients and expects to have contracts in place by the end of the year, says Hank Kenchington, deputy assistant secretary for research and development in the Office of Electricity.