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A kayaker’s observations of the utility industry

08072015-kayak-observationsMy wife and I recently did a mini-getaway and spent a Saturday kayaking down the Upper Iowa River near Decorah. The river level was high enough to provide good current and no portages. The weather was absolutely perfect. We did not take our cell phones. The only sounds were rustling trees, birds and an occasional airliner experiencing “flyover country”. It was just the two of us…and nature. And sunburn.

So what does one do during a four-hour, lazy trip down a river in nearly complete silence? Well, I began to ponder how the surrounding natural beauty illustrates lessons I’ve learned in the electric utility industry. I know…it is pathetic that a kayak trip turned into a blog. Be thankful you are not me!

The choices we make will impact the journey
The outfitter gave us three trip options; two, four or six hours. Depending on our wants, they dropped our kayaks and carcasses at different launch points along the river.

As an industry, we must make choices. What generation mix is appropriate? What are the key factors behind generation choices? Are we going to do predictive, preventive or failure-driven maintenance? What rate of return can we accept for our investments? Many of these decisions are much more complex, difficult and far-reaching than how long I wanted to be on a river.

 UpperIowa-03It is important to plan ahead
At times an island or bridge would appear in the river. We had to decide the best way around it to get to the other side. Sometimes the path was obvious. Sometimes we made an educated guess.

Utilities and companies must constantly develop, monitor and update planning. How much capital investment is required? How much load growth do we need to serve? How much revenue is required to sustain the business? How long will this large infrastructure project take to complete and put into service?

It can be difficult to see very far into the future
We were told our exit point would be just past the second steel bridge. After a few hours, I must admit to hoping that bridge would occur around the next bend. Eventually it appeared, but only within a few minutes of the journey’s end.

Early in my career as a utility engineer, I admit I did not anticipate or predict wind turbine generators rising from the cornfields. I did not anticipate transmission line projects that would exist in support of these relatively new generation sources. In fact, for most of my career, wind generation was still around the corner. It was not visible.

UpperIowa-01Things will eventually change
The Upper Iowa River winds through some (for Iowa) fairly spectacular limestone cliffs. They appear to have been there for millennia, seemingly unchanging sentinels of the river. Yet, upon closer examination, cracks are propagating in portions of the cliff. Chunks of rock inevitably calve off the walls and fall into the river, creating small rapids. The cliffs appear to be eternal, but they are not.

The electric utility industry in the U.S. seemed to hum along (pun intended…a 60 Hz hum) for decades without dramatic changes. Yet now we are seeing rapid and significant changes that likely will reshape our industry for the future. EPA emission rules and the effect of renewable generating sources are two examples of disruptive forces reshaping the traditional utility model in dramatic ways.

The water always smooths out after the rapids
The river did have occasional rapids. Not Colorado white water rafting rapids, but rapids nonetheless. You could hear them coming. It was difficult to anticipate how “wild” they would be until you got close. Okay, none of them were at all wild, but you get my point. Downriver from each set of ”rapids”, calm water returned, along with renewed serenity. It’s a bit like piloting an airplane…hours and hours of boredom interspersed with brief moments of sheer terror.

We all experience rough going in our businesses, utilities and personal lives. The older I get, the more I realize that calm will usually return. The challenge for all of us is to endure the rough spots to the best of our ability and then enjoy the return to normal at the end.

The pace of progress can depend on how hard you work
Our excursion was the four-hour tour. It actually took us closer to five hours. We weren’t told we HAD to paddle, so we mainly let the current move us and occasionally used the paddles for minor course adjustments. It was a perfect afternoon; why did we need to be in a hurry?

To be honest, after a few hours the part of my body that had been sitting on the kayak was getting tired. I wondered how much quicker the trip would have taken if we had actively paddled? This principle applies to almost any aspect of our lives; careers, businesses, marriages, client relationships and so on. Progress is often a function of the amount of effort we put forth.

There may have been more things I learned, but I need to go find some aloe vera lotion for a bit of sunburn.

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.