The future of the smart grid gets argued in many ways, from distribution automation to advanced metering infrastructure, from demand response to consumer engagement.

Two trend lines could trump those arguments, rendering them moot.

The first trend line: over the next five years, as much as half of all power engineers will retire.

The second: in that same period, demand for qualified power engineers is projected to increase.

"This path is not sustainable," according to the IEEE Power and Energy Society, which is attempting to bridge the gap.

(Here's a great piece by my colleague Kate Rowland in the September/October 2010 issue of Intelligent Utility magazine.

Sure, this topic has been discussed in the media, but to the generalist surveying the landscape, the actual, pragmatic steps to address it have been scattershot. (Yet, of course, efforts have been ongoing, see the IEEE PES report, "Preparing the U.S. Foundation for Future Electric Energy Systems: A Strong Power and Energy Engineering Workforce.")

If you are reading this column, one positive step you could take would be to bring the following information and Web links to the attention of any talented high school graduates and college freshmen this spring who are aiming to attend college in the fall and who might have an interest and aptitude for engineering studies. 

Enter: the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative. The process of grid modernization with digital technologies should actually be a draw to an industry that has seemingly lacked pizzazz. Now that electric grid modernization involves cutting edge technology as well as its traditional role in economic development and national security, the iron is hot.

IEEE PES's solution is to offer financial assistance, hands-on career experience and connections with potential employers. That's one track (more in a moment). The other track is to provide the rationale and some seed money to go out and attract additional funds to propel the Scholarship Plus Initiative to meet the nation's needs into the future.

But don't take it from me, I chatted recently with Wanda Reder, known to many of you as the immediate past president of the IEEE PES and a vice president in the power systems services division at S&C Electric Co., Inc. Reder  has a track record of interest in the issue and a predilection for solving challenges.

"I wanted to build confidence and excitement in this effort ," Reder told me. "And you can build interest if you can point to something real."

To jump-start the process the IEEE PES created a $1 million seed fund, some of which has enabled immediate scholarships to be awarded, while the balance will serve as the basis for outreach to philanthropic organizations and businesses to raise $10 million for the mission.

The application process is open until June 30. Monies are awarded in August for the 2011-2012 academic year.

"I see increased workload (for power engineers) and a need for specialized skill sets," Reder told me. "It's not hard to connect the dots. The 'old work' needs to get done, yet at the same time, we're adding sensors and communications to the grid, creating 'new work.'

"We think if we can focus on the sophomore and junior undergraduate years, we can develop a pipeline. Time is of the essence," she said.

Financial scholarships and career-oriented internships are available. Click on the links above to familiarize yourself with the IEEE PES program and bring it to the attention of someone who might take advantage of it.

Then we can mosey up to the bar and argue over what "smart grid" really means.