PSC’s newest Technical Director shared his thoughts on the electricity industry’s shifting cultural landscape, the implications of renewables and decentralized power production, and…Bing Crosby?
You began your power systems career as a reactor operator on a nuclear attack submarine. One would imagine that’s a pretty serious crew, no?
You would think so…however, consider that the average age of the crew is about 22 years old. The oldest person on the boat was either the Captain or the Chief of the Boat. They might have been 35. We were deadly serious on the job but off-the-clock life was like a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road to ___” movie (minus the music). When a bunch of young men are let loose after 90 days at sea, they’re only serious about having fun. I have some epic stories…
How has the industry changed since you began working in power systems in the Navy?
A couple of things come immediately to mind:
- One is that the Nuclear Navy represents the pinnacle of professionalism in Engineering. The utility industry is only recently moving towards that precept in design and operational expectations. Mandatory reliability standards are helping push that along.
- The biggest change has to be the impact of FERC Order 888. Forcing transmission owners to allow third parties to interconnect to the transmission system has made the landscape of utility planning and operations probably unrecognizable from the viewpoint of the folks who electrified North America. The practical outcomes of Order 888 are all positive.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Western Interconnection? The WECC?
The easy answer is the impact of intermittent generation. That presents an engineering challenge, but what I have observed is that we are in the throes of a cultural shift from a 20th-century viewpoint to the 21st-century viewpoint. Electricity was a convenience for folks who had lived without it (my grandparents for example). For my children, electricity feels like a right. We need to understand that viewpoint and move the bar for the performance of design and equipment in an upward direction. The term “Gold Plating” might not be so relevant anymore.
How ready is the WECC for large amounts of renewables?
Large amounts of renewables are happening whether we are ready or not. I think the policymakers are way out in front. The law of unintended consequences and the rule of unknown unknowns (Don Rumsfeld’s finest quote) are showing up. The Blue Cut Fire was a wakeup call that shows that we either aren’t as smart as we think we are, or that there is always room to communicate better. Probably both. It is best to be humble in this business.
What future development in the industry are you most excited about?
The decentralization of power production. The trend is towards third party generation resources which really shakes up the business. Merchant generation competes in a true market and they are offering takeaway prices for energy lower than a vertically integrated utility can. Utilities will have to truly compete. I suspect the business landscape for rate-based utilities is changing in ways that will really challenge them.
Tracy Rolstad is a Technical Director for PSC North America in Kirkland, WA. He received his BSEE from the University of Idaho and a graduate diploma from the Naval War College (College of Naval Command and Staff).
He started his career in power systems as a Reactor Operator and Engineering Watch Supervisor in the United States Navy (onboard USS Hawkbill) serving 22 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve. His experience in power system planning and modeling began at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center and then developed and evolved at the Bonneville Power Administration (technical operations), as a Principal Engineer at Utility System Efficiencies, as a Consulting Engineer at Avista Utilities, and now as a Technical Director for PSC.
Tracy presently serves as the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) Data Subcommittee Chair and as a member of the WECC Reliability Assessment Committee (RAC) governing body. He has served as the WECC Technical Studies Subcommittee Chair, Vice-Chair, and Secretary. Additionally, he served as the WECC RAS and Relay Workgroup Chair addressing modeling issues related to 2011 AZ to CA outage. He is a member of the IEEE, the VFW and serves as a member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board for the University of Idaho.