As I was retiring from PJM Interconnection and looking back on more than 40 years of maintaining a reliable grid, I realized constant through my career: if the lights aren’t on, nothing else matters.
Even before I started out as a young power supply engineer at the Tennessee Valley Authority, I heard stories from the 1930s and 1940s, when the TVA first brought electrification to rural Tennessee homes. Farmers would help set poles on their property. Then, the linemen would walk into a house, lit dimly with a kerosene lamp, and watch the expressions of wonder as he flipped on the lights for the first time, and they blew out the kerosene lamps forever.
After paying a $5 deposit and helping build a three-quarter mile distribution line up his driveway, on Sept. 9, 1939, electricity came to the family farm of A.C. Boston, my grandfather. That meant things like the milk was in the fridge and not in the spring and a pump was in the spring with running water in the house. Tears came to my grandfather’s eye when I told him I was going to work at the TVA power system control center right out of engineering school.
I’ve seen the grid transform in my career from my first TVA Control System in 1972 to PJM’s Advanced Control Center, which is one of the world’s most sophisticated, secure energy management and control system with identical, dual-primary control centers.
Coal was king when I began. Now with low natural gas prices, gas is replacing coal as the dominate source of power. As we increasingly depend on gas for generation, natural gas and electric markets must work together more efficiently. Who would have expected a day when single-unit nuclear facilities and many traditional coal plants would no longer be competitive?
I headed the TVA storm center for 20 years. Today, it seems like 100-year storms and weather extremes are coming around every few years. We’ve worked through dozens of hurricanes, hundreds of tornados and wind storms such as Superstorm Sandy and derechos.
In 2011, PJM experienced the hottest temperatures on record: 106 degrees in Pennsylvania and 108 in New Jersey. In 2012, a derecho 200 miles wide and 600 miles long moved from Chicago to Washington in less than 10 hours. Superstorm Sandy followed that fall. It was a flood at the coast, a blizzard in the mountains and an ice storm as it crossed to the Midwest.
While we must guard against storms and physical threats to the grid, cyberattacks may present an even bigger risk. The use of the Internet transformed the world, including the electricity system. However, the challenge for grid security may result in leaving the World Wide Web altogether. Should we manage the grid with a closed fiber system that the utilities own and operate?
When I first joined TVA I was surprised that we owned and operated our own communication system. Will cyber risk take us “back to the future” and off the public-switched communication network?
I get upset when people say that, if Thomas Edison were alive today, he would recognize all the equipment in a substation. Clearly they have not been in a substation. We have come a long way in using power electronics, SF6 switchgear, and new materials like MOV lightning arrestors to improve our load-not-served numbers. We have moved the conversation beyond reliability.
Resilience has joined reliability as our objective in running the grid. Resilience is not only about having capacity and energy to meet demand; it’s also about adding technologies that will make the grid able to respond to, ride through, and recover from physical and cyber threats.
Keeping electricity affordable is a must for the customers we serve. Continual improvement is vital. At PJM, we developed “Perfect Dispatch” to continually improve the unit commitment and dispatch decisions. It has improved commitment decisions and saved customers $1.2 billion in production costs.
But, as I learned when I began my career, electricity is not just a bottom line . . . it’s a lifeline.
Whatever our roles in the electric power business, we share a common, noble mission: to keep the lights on for the people we serve. I remember well the mission when I first came to work. “To serve the region – to serve the people – to raise the standard of living for the people we serve.”
The electric business is the business of public service.
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Reflections – Takeaways from a 40-year Career
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