First Fantastic Forty
Steve Mitnick is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly and author of the book “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm.”
The first transformational transmission line design in nearly fifty years? They developed it. The world's first battery/gas turbine hybrid system at existing peakers. They developed it too.
The world's first underground spent fuel storage facility at an operating nuclear plant. They developed it. One of the first distribution utility natural gas compressors. They developed it too.
Vertical climbing inspection robots. They developed them. Transmission line crawling inspection robots. They developed them too.
The world's first interstate trading program for water quality. They developed it. The largest offshore wind farm in U.S. waters. They're developing it.
A lab to protect widely dispersed substations and transmission. They developed it. The Swiss Army knife of high-voltage transformers as backup as we face grid security threats. They developed it too.
Grid integration, CEO-level grid security focus, utilities partnering with anyone, wind turbine steel substituting for fuel. They're the pioneers.
And innovation as a corporate strategy? They pioneered that too.
They are forty.
- Steven Ewens, Ameren
- Alex Rojas, Ameren
- Jeff Fleeman, American Electric Power
- Alex Hofmann, American Public Power Association
- Lauren Weinrich, American Water
- David Hood, Austin Energy
- Sarah Edmonds, Berkshire Hathaway Energy
- Andrew Bordine, CMS Energy
- Holly Bowers, CMS Energy
- Vibhu Kaushik, Edison International
- Erik Takayesu, Edison International
- Randy Hickman, Entergy
- Shannon Watts, Entergy
- Ron Domitrovic, Electric Power Research Institute
- Jessica Fox, Electric Power Research Institute
- Maria Guimaraes, Electric Power Research Institute
- Mike Howard, Electric Power Research Institute
- Andrew Phillips, Electric Power Research Institute
- John Simmins, Electric Power Research Institute
- Lee Olivier, Eversource
- Sonya Harbaugh, Exelon
- Brian Hoff, Exelon
- David Ranallo, Great River Energy
- Earlynne Maile/Lani Shinsato, Hawaiian Electric
- Lisa Wood, Institute for Electric Innovation
- Bud Ajdukovic, Kissimmee Utility Authority
- Darron Scott, Kodiak Electric Association
- Carlos Nouel, National Grid
- Emilie Bolduc, New York Power Authority
- Ricardo DaSilva, New York Power Authority
- Dave Monte, NiSource
- John Carmody/Rick Edwards, Northwestern Energy
- Josh Byrnes, Osage Municipal Utilities
- Mark Cayce, Ouachita Electric Cooperative
- Brian Arellano, PNM Resources
- Lizette Miranda, Sacramento Municipal Utility District
- Julia Hamm, Smart Electric Power Alliance
- Tom Fanning, Southern Company
- Chris Marshal/Doug Venjohn, Westar Energy
- Ben Fowke, Xcel Energy
They hail from twenty-nine organizations. Seventeen are investor-owned utilities. Eight more are from utilities - five public powers and three cooperatives. The remaining four are utility associations.
We received many nominations for distinguished innovators at other kinds of organizations in the electric, natural gas and water utilities industry. We wish we could honor them all. But we decided to focus here on individuals who are innovating at utilities. This hard decision made easier by NARUC's initiative that will do an admirable job honoring those innovating in utility regulation.
Back to the forty. Twenty-two of them are individuals in the employ of investor-owned utilities. Six of them are in the employ of public power utilities. Three are at electric cooperatives.
Six are at that one association of utilities that is almost synonymous for innovation, the Electric Power Research Institute. When we saw the nominations, it was impossible for us to select a fewer number.
Three are at other utility associations - the American Public Power Association, the Institute for Electric Innovation (a good name!), and the Smart Electric Power Alliance.
Six utilities also scored multiple innovators. Ameren, CMS Energy, Edison International, Entergy, Exelon and the New York Power Authority had two of their people make the list.
There are five names on the list that everyone knows - Tom Fanning, Ben Fowke, Julia Hamm, Mike Howard, Lisa Wood. But there are thirty-five others that few of us have heard of, until now. Like that slick shortstop on a small-market team, that can hit with the big boys, these thirty-five are about to step from relative anonymity to the world stage, as members of the 2017 Fortnightly Top Forty Innovators.
There's a good demographic mix. Among the forty is Darron Scott, who works for the Kodiak Electric Association, in the forty-ninth state. Also among the forty are Earlynne Maile and Lani Shinsato, who work for Hawaiian Electric, in the fiftieth.
Yes, I know. We cheated. We counted Earlynne and Lani as one; they work so closely together at Hawaiian Electric. We cheated as well with John Carmody and Rick Edwards of Northwestern Energy; they're also a tight team. Plus, Chris Marshall and Doug Venjohn of Westar Energy; another tight team. Earlynne and Lani. John and Rick. Chris and Doug. Three pairs of innovators. Each we were compelled to count as one.
We got Californians - Vibhu Kaushik and Erik Takayesu of Edison International, and Lizette Miranda of Sacramento Municipal Utility District. We got New Englanders - Lee Olivier of Eversource, and Carlos Nouel of National Grid. From the northwest are Sarah Edmonds of PacifiCorp (Berkshire Hathaway Energy), and the aforementioned John Carmody and Rick Edwards of Northwestern Energy.
From the Great Lakes states, the top innovators are very well represented. We got Jeff Fleeman of American Electric Power (much more on him below), Andrew Bordine and Holly Bowers of CMS Energy, Sonya Harbaugh and Brian Hoff of Exelon, David Ranallo of Great River Energy, and Dave Monte of NiSource.
Top innovators from the Midwest are very well represented too. We got Steve Ewens and Alex Rojas of Ameren, Josh Byrnes of Osage Municipal Utilities, Mark Cayce of Ouachita Electric Cooperative, and the aforementioned Chris Marshall and Doug Venjohn of Westar Energy.
Of the forty, eleven were women (or a pair of women). And twenty-nine were men (or a pair of men). We would not be surprised if the 2018 Top Forty and 2019 Top Forty have a greater percentage of women than twenty-eight percent.
Well, let's get to it. Check out the important new products, services and methods that the Top Forty has invented and advanced. See how they're impacting our industry and society.
They Developed Firsts
Jeff Fleeman championed the game-changing transmission technology that his company AEP calls Breakthrough Overhead Line Design or BOLD®. We were so impressed by its advantages in performance, cost and siting that we're including Lisa Barton's nomination letter directly following this article.
Steve Ewens and his team at Ameren developed the world's first underground spent fuel storage facility at an operating nuclear power plant.
Holly Bowers championed the development of a natural gas compressor that solved a low-pressure issue during peak fall usage, avoiding a nine-million-dollar pipeline project. Through her leadership, Consumers Energy is one of the first utilities to own and operate a natural gas compressor on a distribution system (versus a transmission system).
Vibhu Kaushik led a team to develop the world's first battery and gas turbine hybrid system at two existing Southern California Edison peaker sites. The system responds immediately to grid needs through the use of utility-scale battery storage while an enhanced gas turbine ramps up.
Jessica Fox, at EPRI, created and manages the world's first interstate trading program for water quality. And this program isn't small potatoes. It's gigantic, the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Program. Talk about proof of concept. It's supporting the adoption of agricultural conservation practices to reduce nutrient loads of nitrogen and phosphorous in Ohio River Basin waters.
Chris Marshall and Doug Venjohn of Westar Energy, are paired because their work is paired. Shall we say their awesome work. Chris and Doug and their team developed a Swiss Army knife of high-voltage transformers - a flexible, multi-tap, high-voltage transformer that could be optimally located, easily transported and rapidly deployed to any of the key substations. Wow.
Remember that most challenging of grid security problems that faces the industry? In which transformers are so different from each other and so difficult to replace? Well, Chris and Doug applied their ingenuity to the problem and engineered a compelling solution.
Very High Tech
Andrew Bodine championed the use of drones for inspections of electric lines, wind turbines, etc. at his company, Consumers Energy, one of the first utilities to receive its FAA 333 exemption for drone use.
Maria Guimaraes and her team at EPRI are pioneering vertical climbing robots to inspect large concrete structures such as at nuclear and hydroelectric plants.
Andrew Phillips and his team at EPRI gave birth to Ti. The robot's name is It spelled backwards; don't know if Andrew thought of that. On transmission lines, Ti literally crawls over conductor shield wires, harvests power from ambient energy sources, and does high-fidelity condition assessments of the lines. Really, science fiction meets reality. There's even a safety impact. We frail humans don't need to go up the poles to do these assessments nor buzz the lines with helicopters to check them out.
Augmented reality is great for games. But John Simmins and his team at EPRI are putting AR and other wearable tech to work in the real world to keep the lights on, such as in storm damage assessment.
Changing the World
Lauren Weinrich of American Water has served as the project manager for a joint research project with Drexel University to investigate ways to predict and reduce a major challenge in desalination.
EPRI's Ron Domitrovic and his team are leading the research that could improve the heating and cooling efficiency in as much as ninety percent of homes in the U.S. Particularly the next-gen heat pump with a variable-speed compressor.
Mike Howard works at EPRI too. Well, actually, he directs it as the CEO. But the Top Forty isn't a lifetime achievement award or an honorary for famous names. Mike has pushed EPRI to unprecedented performance, as might be measured in the sheer quantity of research, or more importantly in the impact of EPRI research on our industry and society.
Though actually that's not why we're putting him on the list. Mike - more than any one individual - drove the industry to think in terms of integration. For decades, we all considered the industry in three somewhat separate buckets. Generation. Transmission. Distribution. They were connected, sure, but still separate in their character and challenges. And there wasn't really a fourth bucket. Customers? Oh, that was where we dropped off the product - electricity - as if we were a FedEx deliveryman leaving a package on the porch.
Mike, with a whole lot of help from thought leaders within and outside EPRI, committed us to the integrated grid. He picked up the three buckets, metaphorically, and found the fourth, and poured them out into a common pool. In everyone's minds, the industry is now a single integration of supply and demand and connections betwixt them.
Lee Olivier has a cool title at Eversource Energy. He's an executive vice president, for strategy and business development. But what he's doing now to impact our future is cooler.
Lee is driving the development of the - by far - largest offshore wind farm in U.S. waters. Bay State Wind, in partnership with Danish Oil and Natural Gas Energy, is planned to have two thousand megawatts of badly-needed New England-based generating capacity. If you're in the transmission biz, you already knew Lee has many successful transmission projects on his resume. And you'd agree that if there's one guy who can make this all happen, it's him.
Carlos Nouel is vice president of National Grid's team to pioneer utility 2.0, 3.0 and beyond, dubbed New Energy Solutions. He is leading the charge (ha!) on the Fruit Belt Neighborhood Solar Partnership, Clifton Park Smart Meters and several other projects and demonstrations in upstate New York and New England.
One can praise the work and impact of Julia Hamm, of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, at length, and still fall far short of sufficiently appraising her leadership and how she's moved our industry. Where to start?
Perhaps by saying that she is a remarkable entrepreneur in crafting coalitions and associations. Doing this, she has developed a broad consensus on what the industry's future might look like. Julia came up with a name for that vision - the fifty-first state. As if there was a new state, a fifty-first state, and we could design an optimal electricity industry from scratch. It's been a highly-effective thought experiment, to get everyone to think creatively about our options and future.
Ben Fowke, Xcel Energy's CEO, is Mr. Wind in our minds and so a worthy member of the list. Ben has transformed and is further transforming Xcel Energy into a powerhouse of zero-carbon generation, mainly wind farms, paired with low-carbon generation, mainly highly-efficient gas plants. Indeed, some of his wind farms in the very windy middle of the country have reached down and passed below the cost of fossil fuel-based generation. Hence Xcel's strategy and motto of trading "steel for fuel."
Innovation is Cool
Alex Hofmann created eReliability Tracker or eRT for the American Public Power Association where Alex works. The patented eRT is used by more than four hundred utilities to collect, categorize and analyze outage data.
Sarah Edmonds has pioneered PacifiCorp's participation and refinement of the Western Energy Imbalance Market. This was a challenging project involving large changes in operations, technologies and regulation.
Here's another neat title. Brian Hoff is director of corporate innovation at Exelon. He apparently earned the title by launching and being the driving force for innovation at the nation's largest utility.
But we really wanted to put him on the list because his humongous Exelon Innovation Expo - featured in August's Public Utilities Fortnightly - was the inspiration for Fortnightly Top Forty Innovators. Brian and his team taught us how important it is to recognize and celebrate individual innovators in our industry.
Sonya Harbaugh is a principal in the distributed energy development group at Constellation Energy, an unregulated sub of Exelon. Sonya founded a new business accelerator there. Among its first achievements was development of a digital electric vehicle adoption platform - very creatively called EZ-EV - that is now live and selling cars.
It wouldn't make any sense to not list Lisa Wood, executive director of the Institute for Electric Innovation, in any honor roll of top innovators. We can think of a number of reasons why Lisa easily makes the Top Forty. But one stands out to us.
Lisa has been a tireless promotor of the need for partnering. That is, the need for utilities to team up with tech companies and other groups pushing the envelope. Her campaigning for partnering has had a huge effect. Indeed, one utility chief exec told us that the best ideas are the best whether they come from within his company or from outside.
Darron Scott is a CEO, but of a cooperative that is located thousands of miles from most of us, up at the Kodiak Electric Association. The cooperative is actually on Kodiak Island, off Alaska's coast, with a population of fifteen thousand. Most of its grid's twenty-five megawatts of generation comes from hydro and wind.
Recently, the City of Kodiak and Horizon Lines decided to replace a diesel-fueled port crane with an electric crane. No way could this microgrid handle the fluctuations in demand from the relatively large load. Darron got together with ABB to install two one-megawatt fast-acting grid stabilization generators, saving a lot of diesel fuel and a lot of money.
Now let's talk about the inseparable pair of John Carmody and Rick Edwards at Northwestern Energy. John is director of asset management at the utility. Rick is director of community connections (a cool title). John, Rick and their team went practically overboard in involving all stakeholders in co-designing the Northwestern Energy of the future. The resulting distribution system infrastructure plan - to attack aging infrastructure and modernize it - was jointly crafted by the group. Collaboration, as is often the case, led to cooperation, and the plan is progressing to implementation.
Brian Arellano and his team at PNM Resources developed the PNM New Mexico Operations Substation Test Lab. It addresses a big challenge that PNM has faced. There is a lack of proven technologies that allow remote access to geographically-dispersed substations and equipment. This is an acute problem in PNM's footprint in sparsely populated New Mexico and west Texas.
When the lab was completed, processes that used to take an entire day in some instances because of travel time now take only minutes. Already the lab is playing a critical role in placing cyber assets on the PNM bulk electric system behind firewalls, at more than fifty transmission facilities.
You cannot have a serious list of the industry's top innovators without Tom Fanning's name on it. One of the most influential thinkers and doers we've had the privilege of seeing in our careers. Should we cite his insistence and persistence to revive the nation's nuclear industry? Or how about his courageous work to combat climate change with carbon sequestration? Or his dedication to research and development at, uniquely, Southern's own extensive labs (as well as at EPRI)?
Let's not go that way. Let's instead base his inclusion in the Top Forty on his truly tireless leadership (and we do mean truly tireless) in early and ongoing development of the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council.
The vital group literally protects the nation's electricity systems from the traditional threats of natural disasters and the emerging threats of cyber and physical attacks, coordinating with the government, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and first responders. The thing is, Tom's not just involved in the ESCC. He is totally all over it. We're grateful for his service and patriotism and all those on the ESCC team.
Industry Transformation? On It
Alex Rojas and his team at Ameren developed one of the only utility-scale microgrids that also has the ability to serve live customer loads.
Erik Takayesu led the team at Southern California Edison (of Edison International) that developed the plan to modernize the grid and operations to accommodate customers adopting rooftop solar, battery storage and electric vehicles.
Randy Hickman of Entergy worked with Louisiana State University to develop a smart network protector to automatically (without manual intervention) allow renewable generation to connect to downtown networks without tripping the network protector when there is more power generated than load drawn.
David Ranallo is manager of marketing and member services at Great River Energy, a Minnesota cooperative. David is totally passionate about electrifying the nation's transportation sector. He's all over electric vehicles. He "drove" the Revolt program so consumers could fill up their electric cars with wind power, the Electric Room at the Twin Cities Auto Show, and a large-scale electric school bus pilot. Then there's Plug Into MN, an EV charging corridor from the Twin Cities to Minnesota's north shore, and David's push for adoption of on-road and off-road commercial and industrial equipment like forklifts.
They're a pair, Earlynne Maile and Lani Shinsato of Hawaiian Electric. It was impossible to separate the innovation and achievements of Earlynne, manager of distributed energy resources operations on the islands, and Lani in her department (actually it's Kaiulani, but Lani for short).
Let's start with the challenge. Thirty percent of single-family homes there have private rooftop solar. Thirty percent! To address this unique situation, Earlynne and Lani developed and launched this fall an online and first-of-its-kind Customer Interconnection Tool. Next up for this dynamic duo, a new Smart Export Program to provide incentives to rooftop solar customers who export energy only during the evening peak and support grid stability.
Emilie Bolduc's team at the New York Power Authority is undertaking the unprecedented digitization of customer data (dubbed the New York Energy Manager).
Ricardo DaSilva's team at the New York Power Authority is developing a broad digital hub for utility operations in one common space (dubbed the Integrated Smart Operations Center).
Mark Cayce is the general manager of Ouachita Electric Cooperative. It's far from the largest electric utility at around seven thousand customers in rural central Arkansas. But it's a leader in utility-scale solar.
Mark worked with the largest industrial customer Aerojet Rocketdyne, project developer Silicon Ranch and Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. (Ouachita's power supply cooperative) to build a twelve-megawatt solar system. The industrial customer got a purchase power agreement with a low fixed-cost. Ouachita customers got around half the capacity and energy, and most importantly, lower cost as well.
David Hood leads Austin Energy's Multifamily Low-Income Weatherization Assistance Program, targeting hard-to-reach apartment renters in affordable housing developments. The program is uniquely market-driven with incentives for contractors and property managers.
Shannon Watts of Entergy developed a vertical switch safety restraint to prevent high-voltage and extra-high-voltage switches from coming loose and dropping when opened for maintenance, to protect people working in a substation where switches are routinely opened to isolate live circuits.
Bud Ajdukovic doesn't work for the largest utility. But perhaps Kissimmee Utility Authority - with seventy-four thousand customers - is one of the happiest, as it serves the Walt Disney World area. Bud implemented a virtual call center to promote work from home and a program (called Mentor, as in Matching Employee Numbers to Operational Requirements) to throttle staffing in accordance with customer call volumes. Employees are happier, as befits its proximity to Disney World. And customers are happier too, because their calls are better taken, and because utility costs are well-controlled.
Dave Monte is a senior vice president of NiSource. His portfolio includes safety, environment and training. Ok. But Dave is absolutely obsessive about safety, like many of his counterparts throughout our industry. Recently he and his team really went after the plague of distracted driving, with greatly stepped-up driver training and integrated GPS/diagnostics. Now, they've constructed an outdoor Emergency Response Safety Town, for training. It's a mock neighborhood with mini-homes and businesses and underground utilities and meters.
Readers will recall Josh Byrnes, the general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities, who we wrote about in the Nikola Tesla Corner feature of September's PUF 2.0. He really cares about the kids in his area of all academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Josh provides utility facilities to Iowa Big North, enabling students to work on engaging projects alongside adults from local businesses.
Readers will also recall Lizette Miranda of Sacramento Municipal Utility District, who we also wrote about in that Nikola Tesla Corner feature. Lizette runs the SMUD Career Ambassador program to reach the nearly four hundred schools in the utility's footprint. She increased the number of Career Ambassadors to almost three hundred and expanded the hands-on activities for the kids to make a bigger impact on them.
The nominations for a number of the Top Forty included shout-outs to key team members:
Ameren: Richard Lutz, Corey Jutting, Elizabeth Ptasznik, Michael Corbin, Christopher Graham II, Jon Schaffner, Jay Skitt, Edward Stewart, Ricky Brummet, Dan Muhleman, Darin Quayle, Eric Birkner, Nicholas Torpea, Rodney Hilburn, Rodger Koester, Robert Riegler, Tamer Rousan, Chad Raley.
APPA: Mike Hyland.
Austin Energy: Jaime Gomez, Jack Pittala.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy: Natalie Hocken, Christine Kirsten, Joseph Hoerner.
CMS Energy: Nate Washburn, Matt Henry, Amanda Monette, Dean Baker, Paul Wolven.
Edison International: Matthew Zents, Terry Maddox, Jose Salazar, Janet Combs, Samantha Nelson, Ranbir Sekhon, Al Laven, Casey Scott, Amber Wyatt, Kishore Billapati, Allen Kelinsky, Jason Collette, Anita Shu, Erjiang Sun, Jason Edwards, Brent Buffington, David Balandran, Kelly Henderson, Brandon Tolentino, Nathan Todaro, Tyson Laggenbauer, Eric Nunnally, Roger Salas, Dhaval Dagli, David Castle, Shinjini Menon.
Entergy: Michael Gray, David Chemin, Dennis Dawsey, Jim Schott, Jason Brown, Mark Bruckner, Willie Wilson.
EPRI: Baskar Vairamohan, Tom Reddoch, Becca Madsen, Sal Villalobos, Randy Manley, Paul Weeks.
Kissimmee Utility Authority: Terrance Farley
National Grid: Fouad Dagher, Brian Cronin, Brian Schuster, William Jones, Robert Sheridan, Arunkumar Vedhathiri.
NiSource: Mark Chepke, Dave Varwig, Marie Walker, Martin Zain, Jaquelyn Lange.
Northwestern Energy: Curt Pohl, Mike Cashell.
PNM Resources: Daniel Espinoza, Robert Landavazo, Aaron Redd, William Watkins.