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Getting to Know Your Expert Interview Series: Charles Botsford, Expert in the Digital Utility Community

Energy Central

So many different trends are engrossing the world of utilities these days, from clean energy to decentralization to revamped customer engagement strategies and so much more, but the one trait that ties all aspects of the energy evolution of the moment together is that they are intrinsically tied to digital transformation. The rise of the digital utility is enabling new programs and initiatives from utilities, is making smart infrastructure possible, and is permeating conferences and boardrooms cross the sphere of the utility sector. For this reason, Energy Central is fortunate to have in our network of experts so many influential and insightful voices on the digital utility trend. As we continue our series of interviews allowing you to get to know our experts even better, this week we bring you Charles Botsford, one of our esteemed experts in the Digital Utility Community.

Charles is a jack of many trades in the utility sector, bringing with him experience as a professional chemical engineer, in the field of environmental management, experience in the electric vehicle sector, and deep knowledge of power electronics. He was also kind enough to share some of his insights into the utility sector’s coming transformation and expand on his background that informs his views on where the industry is going next:  

Matt Chester: Can you introduce yourself a bit: what are your areas of expertise, how did you get to be an expert in this field and what have you been working on these days?

Charles Botsford: Friends call me Charlie. I’m a Professional Engineer, specifically accredited as a Chemical Engineer in California. As a freshly minted recipient of a Bachelors in Science in Chemical Engineering, I worked at an oil refinery in Texas, then went back to school for my Masters in Chemical Engineering. My master’s project/thesis was on nitrogen oxide (NOx) abatement from coal combustion. For me, that was a defining period. I gained great insight into air pollution issues as well as the issues associated with coal combustion.

In the 1990s, I spent a decade with AeroVironment and then two years at Parsons managing air quality professionals consulting to utilities, government, and industry working on permitting, air toxics health risk assessments, risk management plans (chlorine, ammonia, etc.), and climate change assessments. I rejoined AeroVironment in 2001 and worked with an amazing group of engineers on hydrogen fuel cell projects, battery systems, power electronics, and high-tech ironless core motors. Then we restarted our EV charging program in 2006, after AeroVironment had been big in EV charging the 1990s. From then on our group worked closely with electric utilities on EV chargers and grid issues.

In the 2007 to 2009 timeframe, we were concerned about the impact of high-power DC chargers on the grid, so I did a fair amount of research on phasor measurement units, or PMUs, which grid operators use for wide grid visualization and control. I thought if large, multi-port DC charging stations could tell the grid what was going on, then that could be a useful feature. So, I wrote and presented a paper at EVS25 in Shenzhen and also submitted a patent application to make use of synchrophasor measurements, which would make the charging stations act as pseudo-PMUs. The idea was novel and technically sound, but we didn’t pursue getting the patent issued because the business model was sketchy at the time, and patent processing costs money.

In 2010, we partnered with Oregon and Washington to develop the West Coast Electric Highway, and I served as project manager for that network of 56 DC fast chargers from then until mid-2019. It was the first network of corridor DC fast chargers in the United States. I learned a lot about siting, site negotiations, station construction, running the network as a business, and helping our EV driver customers stay charged and on the road. I negotiated with Pacific Power, Portland General Electric, and many of the other 22 electric utilities providing power to the network, to reduce demand charges.

I’m currently consulting an auto manufacturer on EV charger/grid issues, working with a university on a very interesting interactive climate change model, collaborating with an environmental law firm on integrating EV charging as firming to a wind farm, and a few other fun projects. Mostly my expertise lies in EV charging infrastructure, especially relative to grid integration. However, my background in air quality and energy makes power generation and its future direction near and dear to my heart. I’ve written or co-authored over 30 papers on air quality, EV charging infrastructure, and most recently on global energy issues.

 

MC: Do you think this well-rounded experience gives you a perspective of the utility industry that others don’t get by staying on one consistent pathway in the industry?

CB: Perspective comes with integrating data from many sources. I think my broad experience probably gives me an edge.

MC: What are the chemical engineering breakthroughs in the industry that you’re watching with a close eye? Something in energy storage? Hydrogen energy? Something else?

CB: I always watch for announcements on battery chemistry. For a while, AeroVironment was the master of battery testing and pack design. We tested every chemistry known to man and vetted everyone from cranks to university programs to auto industry programs. In 2007, we demonstrated a ten-minute fast charge on a 35kWh lithium titanate battery pack for California Air Resources Board—at 250kW. It was a big deal back then. It only took a decade for everyone to hop on board with 150kW and 350kW charging systems. Battery tech and costs have made incredible progress over the last few years.

As a chemical engineer, with roots in the oil industry, I’ve always been fascinated with offshore rigs. Now I’m fascinated with floating offshore wind tech. I hate to admit it, but it’s almost a fixation. The capacity factors of floating offshore wind farms are very high… I digress.

 

MC: What are the most significant mistakes that decision-makers at utilities have mad when it comes to this area in recent years?

CB: I’m not one to point out other’s mistakes, given all the ones I’ve made. I will say that utilities are generally slow to change direction. Because of that they often miss opportunities that other, more nimble, organizations can take advantage of. For that reason, many utilities seem to be in catch up mode on grid evolution and the evolution of their own business model.

 

MC: How do you value the Energy Central community and what this platform can bring in terms of connecting you to colleagues across the industry and sharing with you news/analysis of the day? What do you think is the most valuable aspect of this type of network?

CB: I really like the Energy Central community. The daily news keeps me up to speed on what’s happening with all aspects of the utility industry. No other news source provides the sheer number of items so handily. I also like the in-depth articles that members post, and the questions they ask. This is a great way for spirited debates to pop up on a broad range of topics.

I also post articles from time to time and like the feedback. For example, I just posted an article on 30-year global energy outlooks.

 

MC: Any final thoughts?

CB: I believe we are at a turning point in power generation globally. The uptake in renewables is very promising, but will it happen quickly enough? Energy Central provides an incredibly powerful forum in getting issues out into the open and debating them.

 


 

Thanks once again to Charles for sharing his time and insights in this interview and for being a value expert in the Energy Central Community. Now that you know the wide range and great depth of his experience, you can keep an eye out for content and comments from him and engage with him to gain more insights from his well of knowledge.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interesting in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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Discussions

Hans Hyde's picture
Hans Hyde on Nov 5, 2019 4:24 pm GMT

Thanks for sharing. Not sure where I read this, but Shell just picked up a floating wind company/developer.

what are your thoughts on the development of offshore wind services companies developing in the US? It hard and unfortunate to believe we will outsource this to the Europeans with all the barriers of the Jones Act that will increase costs and create logistical nightmares; ie transferring equipment at sea from one ship/jack up ship to another.

Charles Botsford's picture
Charles Botsford on Nov 5, 2019 7:17 pm GMT

Hi Hans,

To date, it's been all about European companies like Orsted, EnBW, and others bringing their offshore wind project expertise to the US. The US job market will thrive, don't worry. This is a nascent business that has room for many players in the future.

Yeah, about the Jones Act. In 2001, I presented a paper on the air contaminant impacts of the Jones Act--major impacts. At the time, the US Government estimated the Jones Act cost the US economy on the order of $10B annually through restriction of trade and other logistical barriers to which you refer. I'm sure it's a larger cost hit now. While the Jones Act causes issues for traditional offshore wind, it may not be a problem for floating offshore wind. By the way, one of the leaders in floating offshore wind is Principle Power, which is a US company based in the San Francisco area. I believe Shell is a partner of Principle Power, but then Shell is into a lot of wind programs and may very well have acquired a wind developer.

Charles Botsford's picture
Charles Botsford on Nov 6, 2019 7:27 pm GMT

Hi Hans,

You're correct. Just read that Shell picked up the French floating wind developer, Eolfi. 

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