FOR NEARLY 34 YEARS, I HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE TO WORK FOR WISCONSIN ENERGY CORP. Throughout my career there, I was able to learn nearly every facet of the electric business from the ground up — from power plant to boardroom. Being able to do this — while enjoying my beloved Green Bay Packers and the world's best brats and cheese — was enough to make a Wisconsin boy proud.
After serving as president and CEO of WE Generation, I planned to retire. But in our business, plans can change quickly.
In July 2004, I was offered the position of executive vice president and COO for FirstEnergy Corp. The opportunity of going from a company that served 1 million customers in one region to one with 4.5 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey was too great to pass up.
At the time, FirstEnergy was working its way through a tough stretch, including the restart of its Davis-Besse nuclear plant, responding to the regional power outage and the untimely passing of its well-respected CEO Pete Burg. However, one of the reasons I accepted the position was my strong feeling that this wasn't the whole story about the company and its more than 13,000 dedicated employees.
After talking with Tony Alexander, FirstEnergy's president and CEO, I knew the company had the desire and ability to achieve a new level of operational excellence and customer service. In short order, I moved to Akron, Ohio, and made it through a rapid learning curve. And the more I researched, the more I discovered that many outstanding operational initiatives already were in place throughout the company, and moving forward under the guidance of very motivated and talented employees.
ENHANCEMENTS FOR TRANSMISSION OPERATIONS
At FirstEnergy, the reliable operation of our transmission and distribution systems is essential to our success. With that in mind, we've made significant investments in our transmission system to enhance reliability and better meet our customers' growing electricity needs. In 2005, we invested more than US$140 million in capital projects to further enhance our transmission network.
One of our major projects last year was the $12 million renovation of our Ohio System Control Center, near Akron. This was in addition to the $10 million we invested in 2004 for our new energy management system. Both projects were major steps in helping us move toward our goal of being “best in class” in transmission system control operations.
We also developed an enhanced training program and incorporated it into each dispatcher's schedule. The main training tool is our new state-of-the-art Dispatcher Training Simulator. We also are very proud that FirstEnergy has earned the designation of being a NERC-approved continuing education provider and is qualified to train operators from other companies.
Other important components of our transmission operations are the leading-edge and secure backup control centers we've developed for both Ohio and Pennsylvania. The centers are always in “hot standby” so they can be ramped up to full operations quickly.
When dealing with vegetation management issues, we have in place a zero-tolerance policy for tree-related outages in our bulk transmission corridors. Twice a year, we use aerial patrols to inspect each mile of our 500-kV to 69-kV transmission lines, which includes 11,600 miles (18,668 km) in all.
STRONG INDUSTRY SUPPORT
At FirstEnergy, we are committed to supporting NERC, Reliability First, our regional transmission organizations (MISO and PJM) and other industry-related organizations. In addition to assisting NERC with our own control area readiness audit, FirstEnergy employees also have supported four other audits at other companies and are continuing our audit support in 2006.
Our employees have initiated industry discussion and facilitated advancement of research initiatives through involvement with DOE and EPRI to improve power-system modeling practices and interregional reactive power management techniques. And, I believe FirstEnergy will continue to make progress, like many others in our industry, as we bring on thousands of new employees over the next several years as much of our workforce approaches retirement age.
As you've probably gathered by now, I am quite pleased to be in Ohio and proud of my new company. I can honestly say my first impressions about FirstEnergy's employees were right: exceptional people accomplishing exceptional things. And while I'm still searching for the same brats and cheese I enjoyed in Wisconsin, I have found Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers fans in this region have a passion that rivals the Packers fans from back home. Two out of three isn't bad.