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Next-Generation Engineers

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed that the U.S would send an American to the moon and back before that decade was out. The space program in the 1960s inspired many to become engineers. I was one of them. I became an engineer in 1976, four years after the last moon mission. I needed another dose of inspiration to carry me forward. Enter the electric utility industry.

The electric utility industry is often viewed as mundane, but I liked the public service aspects of the industry and was attracted to the advances being made in transmission. Thousands of generators and millions of customers responding nearly instantaneously via the transmission grids of North America, perhaps the greatest machine humans have ever made. Now that's inspiration.

When I joined American Electric Power (AEP) in 1976, I was inspired by AEP's 765-kV system and its progress with ultrahigh-voltage (UHV) transmission. Months before AEP installed its first 765-kV transmission line in 1969, AEP announced it was building a UHV test facility. This facility tested voltages (jointly with ABB) up to approximately 2,000 kV in the hopes of commercially developing 1,500-kV transmission. Lower electric demand in the United States slowed these hopes.

Philip Sporn, president of AEP (then American Gas & Electric Co.) from 1947 to 1961, spearheaded innovative, game-changing generation, transmission and distribution technologies throughout his tenure leading the company. His legacy was fostering a “locus of discontent” that continues today at AEP. This was a fitting phrase used by Sporn to describe AEP's culture of discontent with the status quo in the industry, and it led to a long list of industry “firsts” that were developed and advanced by AEP's engineers. Sporn's legacy continues today.

Sporn recognized that inspiration and invention are not limited to the United States. He also served as president of the U.S. National Committee (USNC) of CIGRÉ from 1954 to 1972, a position I hold today with honor. CIGRÉ is an acronym for a French title that means The International Council For Large Electric Systems, which is headquartered in Paris, France. In the 1980s, AEP CEO W.S. “Pete” White, Jr. also became president of the USNC of CIGRÉ and ascended to the chair of CIGRÉ international.

Today, utilities are developing and integrating technologies under the term “smart grid” to enable the greatest machines humans have ever invented to do more. Life as we know it depends on our electric grids, more today than at any time in the past. Customers want control over their use. Nations want security of the grid. Fuels for electricity are in transition. These challenges are happening all over the world. Why is our industry still viewed by our next-generation engineers as mundane?

What will inspire next-generation engineers? Will it be a world leader, a CEO, or will it be an expert at a conference that talked about the possibilities? Ideas are born from the collective impact of stimuli from many sources, but there also must be an inner desire to seek innovative solutions. I know our next-generation engineers will innovate, because I believe the desire to be an engineer is synonymous with being a problem solver. To facilitate innovation, we must foster their exposure to stimuli for inspiration.

We must make available to our next-generation engineers opportunities to experience stimuli from all over the world. Too often, we limit grand travel adventures to seasoned engineers and executives. When we get back to the office, we forget the yearning of the next-generation engineers. Yes, I'm one of those seasoned people, but I remind our team to invite the next generation to the table as they will undoubtedly have better answers about our future.

CIGRÉ is ideally suited to provide inspiration to our next-generation engineers. CIGRÉ includes thousands of members from 90 countries focused on power system engineering for generation, transmission and distribution. CIGRÉ opens portals to: China, which has excellent experience with UHV; Europe, which has been a leader in renewables integration; and other excellent examples of technical leadership from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, India and many more countries.

The biennial CIGRÉ conference in Paris (in even numbered years) is the premier event with thousands of delegates in attendance, but the USNC of CIGRÉ hosts several events annually, as well. For example, on November 16 and 17 this year, we will hold a Game Changers Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., hosted by our National Committee, Burns & McDonnell and GE, focused on discussions among seasoned and next-generation engineers.

If you are a seasoned engineer, invite and engage the next-generation engineers. Leave your legacy with them by daily engagement, then watch them soar to greater heights.

Mike Heyeck is the senior vice president of transmission at American Electric Power and president of the U.S. National Committee of CIGRÉ.

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