Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Welcome Steve Beilstein, Transmission Line Lead at RRC Companies and New Expert in the Transmission Professionals Community
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- Sep 10, 2019 8:00 pm GMT
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Continuing on with Energy Central’s exciting ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series,’ a part of our Power Perspectives™, we turn to the Transmission Professionals Community. Energy Central’s network of experts, is truly one of the resources in this community-based platform that sets us apart, as all readers and community members are a click away from interacting with and learning from esteemed leaders in various aspects of the utility industry. Steve Beilstein is just such a leader in the field of transmission and so we’re incredibly excited to have recently had him agree to become an expert in Energy Centrals’ Transmission Professionals Community.
Steve currently works at RRC Companies as a Transmission Line Lead, bringing with him an impressive background in electrical engineering and power technologies. His passion for this industry and ensuring a safe and reliable grid is contagious, and hopefully in reading this conversation he and I had you’ll feel that same excitement about power transmission (but at the very least, you’ll know who to turn to in the Energy Central community for insights into the field!):
Matt Chester: Before getting into the questions, I just want to thank you both for taking the time to answer these questions and also for dedicating your time to be an Energy Central Expert in the Transmission Group. We’re excited to have your knowledge and experience at the disposal of our community. In that light, can you start by giving our Community an overview on your background and what your wealth of experience and knowledge is that has led to you being able to be considered an expert in this field?
Steve Beilstein: I am an Electrical Engineer with a B.S. from Oregon State University, Class of 2004, focusing on power and power electronics. When I graduated, I had the idea that I wanted to work for Bonneville Power Administration in their systems or operations group and eventually design or operate the transmission grid as a whole. However, at the time Black & Veatch was number one in Power Delivery in the Engineering News Record and had an office in Portland. I grew up in Oregon and wanted to stay here so I applied and was hired. I could have gone into substation engineering but was instead slated for the transmission team and began transmission line engineering at Black & Veatch in 2005. I started out as a Design Engineer on a large 230 kV PG&E Overhead/Underground EPC project in San Francisco. I continued to work on mostly overhead transmission projects over the years and I credit on my resume over 20 projects for multiple clients as a Lead or Project Engineer along with various other projects in a supporting role.
I took the PE exam in the Fall of 2008 in California and was licensed as an Electrical Engineer in 2009. I have been the Project Engineer on many reconductor projects and some new lines, services only and EPC. I also assisted on the preliminary permitting designs for an over 200-mile 500 kV line in Oregon. I also lent my knowledge and skills to developing the technical scope of work for a 115 kV Overhead/Underground EPC Project RFP package. I developed and managed the quality assurance program for a large-scale SCADA switch replacement project. My last role was heading up the engineering teams, spread across the United States, for five different 115 kV transmission line projects.
I recently moved to RRC Power & Energy to build a transmission line team and to work on renewables projects in addition to more traditional utilities projects.
I truly love transmission line engineering consulting. I have seen and experienced many different aspects of the industry in a short amount of time, from the preliminary engineering stages of a project through construction and as-builts for multiple clients and client types. I have also worked with great teams of experienced and knowledgeable people. Surrounding myself with the best minds in the field gives me continuous opportunities to grow and learn as well as share my experience. I have worked on new lines and analyzed, refurbished, and reconductored older lines, steel poles, wood poles, lattice steel towers, etc. In 2018, I wrote a paper, with assistance, and presented at the ASCE ETS Conference in Atlanta. The paper was later rewritten for an article in T&D Magazine. Moving forward, I’m excited to work across the United States with RRC. I’m currently working on some renewable interconnection projects in Texas and Missouri while developing our team, standards, and processes. These will be used on many of our renewables client’s projects including renewable interconnection lines and overhead collector systems.
MC: With the utility industry evolving in so many ways—penetration of renewables, the rise of the industry’s role in EVs, cybersecurity becoming a major focus, DERs becoming more commonplace, and more—how is the transmission field specifically fitting into this evolution? Are the leaders and decision-makers focused on transmission playing more of a leading role in many of these changes or is transmission having to be more reactionary to address this type of evolution?
SB: Coming from the utility engineering consulting side of the industry, I didn’t see many of the necessary, system-wide, future-ready decisions being made in my typical day. My role was mainly to fulfill the specific project design requirements of our clients. However, based on what I typically heard in discussions, the transmission industry is definitely looking forward by trying to anticipate the changes that these new technologies and potential issues will require. The challenge is that there is still a ton of work to be done on the existing infrastructure.
We are at a time of great change in the transmission line and energy industry. Especially since the industry has remained relatively the same until recently. In the past 5 years, the transmission industry has evolved more than in the past 50 years. Why? New tools are being developed and used that allow for more detailed design considerations and new materials are beginning to be implemented. In addition, energy consumption is increasing, and will continue to increase with more electric vehicles, and fossil generation is being replaced with renewable generation resources. These resources are also in new locations, requiring new transmission lines. This isn’t an easy task. New lines are getting harder to build due to environmental constraints and regulatory requirements. We do our best to predict the needs of the industry, but I don’t think anyone really knows how it is all going to shake out over the next 5 to 25 years. However, I do believe everyone is talking about it and aware of the challenges ahead. The industry is working internally and externally within the community to address it. There is a lot of work to be done, whether it’s refurbishing aging infrastructure, building new infrastructure, and/or creating new processes to adapt as quickly as possible to change. In general, the industry will likely be playing catch up for a while because of limited resources in talent and finances.
MC: What would you say is the top priority of utility professionals today who are working on the transmission system. What topics have the transmission community, yourself included, most excited and what questions or concerns are keeping them (and you) up at night?
SB: Since most of my experience is on the west coast of the U.S., mainly in California and Oregon, mitigating the threat of wildfires is at the top of priority lists when it comes to transmission and distribution infrastructure. In fact, mitigating for the effects of extreme weather patterns, even post-disaster restoration plans, is already a fast-growing concern for all utilities in general.
Prior to this, it was the NERC FAC Alert clearance mitigation projects that were a major priority. These topics go hand in hand because it’s mainly a question of aging infrastructure that was designed using manual ground survey data (non-LiDAR) and older design standards and processes. The NERC FAC alert at least started the process of identifying and mitigating any potential electrical clearance issues. There is still a substantial amount of work to be done to mitigate any potential structural issues. For example, there are huge programs in place by western utilities for analyzing and replacing aging wood poles and using drones for inspecting the state of the structures and hardware. But it’s the amount of work and resources necessary to mitigate aging infrastructure that keeps me up at night. I will admit that 1,000+ wood pole replacement projects are probably not as glamorous and exciting as a new 500 kV 200+ mile transmission line project, but they are necessary and probably the largest, most challenging, and most important project on the west coast right now.
I am most excited about the ongoing and accelerating build-out of the renewable generation infrastructure in the world. Renewables in the U.S. were just starting to kick off when I started my career, so working specifically in the industry wasn’t a great option then. Now, they are one of the fastest growing aspects of the industry and bring huge opportunities for work, developing relationships, and gaining experience. These projects include short interconnection lines, collector lines, and the long extra high voltage transmission lines required to move that energy from where the resources are to the load. It is an amazing time in the industry. I feel lucky that, as a Transmission Line Engineer, I have a front row seat to the shift from fossil fuel generation to renewables. I’m proud and excited to be a part of it. Who knows what the future will bring? It could be distributed generation and storage, smart grids, and massive energy storage that will allow the replacement of many transmission lines. Maybe someday my job will be to design how to repurpose or demolish aged transmission lines. If so, it will be interesting to see the entire lifecycle of these projects from beginning to end, all within a single career, and I look forward to adapting to these changes.
MC: As someone in the transmission field, what’s been the most memorable challenge you’ve had to tackle in your career? How were you able to solve the problem with which you were presented?
SB: I’ve had many memorable design challenges throughout my career. Evolving industries always come with their share of challenges. One of the most memorable challenges is the one I wrote a paper for and presented at the ASCE ETS Conference in Atlanta last year. Basically, we were in the middle of construction for a reconductor project. Due to working over two major freeways, the replacement and tensioning of the conductor on the ahead and back span of an older existing tower had to be done over two consecutive nights. It was noted during construction that the sag of the spans was not remaining in place as the other phases of the circuits were being tensioned. In fact, because of the tensioning on consecutive nights, the lattice steel tower had deflected and rotated. As soon as this was determined, we acquired survey data of the tower and the spans. I then completed a full finite element analysis model of the tower and system using PLS-CADD and TOWER design software. The model behaved almost exactly as seen in the field. The analysis showed that the tower would support the required loads but would not be at its full capacity. So, once it was deemed safe, we started with a full visible inspection of the tower to ensure that there were no damaged or faulty members. While this was being completed, we developed a temporary design to adjust the conductor lengths in the new spans and a re-tensioning process to allow the tower to return to plumb. The conductor length adjustments were developed using the finite element model again and, once in place, the model matched the real-world as-designed conditions. In the end, we developed new tower modifications to adjust the conductor lengths and allow for a standard hardware assembly. It was definitely a team effort.
In general, I think this challenge could have been avoided with more careful planning and analysis. It serves as a good lesson that although typically considered rigid, lattice steel towers do move under certain conditions.
MC: When you recently joined the Energy Central community and agreed to become one of our transmission experts, what was it about Energy Central that motivated you to get more involved? What type of value are you hoping to bring to your fellow community members and what benefits are you expecting to get out if the platform?
SB: I am interested in becoming part of the online transmission engineering community in general, Energy Central presented itself as being a more forward-thinking method of interacting within the community. Many industries are struggling to adapt to a more web-based and interconnected communication medium, but this is the way of the future. Obviously, there’s IEEE, ASCE, etc., but there also needs to be a medium for discussions outside of limited committees and single event conferences. There needs to be a place for a community of professionals to interact and work together regularly. With the energy industry evolving rapidly, we need an outlet for immediate and consistent discussion on opportunities for growth and innovation.
Now looking from the outside, I can see that in the past I was constantly looking for ways to bring together our various power delivery engineering offices to share information and resources. I also developed tools, training, and processes that were shared across offices. However, since there was such a large group, I rarely felt the need to reach outside of the company. Now that I am at another company and building a team and business, I understand the value of communicating with my peers. I see the online community as my best opportunity for that. I am toying with the idea of developing a YouTube training series, writing a general transmission how-to-design guide geared towards consultants and new engineers, and developing more tools or resources to share with the community. I can see the potential value in adding to all the great resources that have been developed by other industry experts over the years. We can all learn from each other, learn from each other’s mistakes, and all get better at our jobs. Obviously, competition drives us to want to keep a lot information to ourselves, but does that really provide the most benefit to the community and our clients overall?
MC: Is there anything else you’d like the community to know?
SB: Transmission line engineering wasn’t specifically discussed much during my time in school or when I was preparing to start a career. I didn’t really consider it as an option. In fact, I considered being a brew master first! Luckily for me, I kind of fell into it. I really do love the work that I do. It is satisfying and challenging, and I am still learning every day. Part of what I love is that transmission lines are linear projects, which provides a variability in design requirements that single-site projects don’t typically have. There are so many variables to consider when routing and design a transmission line. It makes every line its own. In general, there are not many 100+ mile long roads or railroads being built these days. If anything, pipelines are probably the next closest type of linear project that is being designed and built currently, maybe hyperloops soon? Transmission lines can traverse some of the worst terrain imaginable as well, so as a designer you get to deal with extremely challenging design requirements at times. I’m not saying that transmission lines are more challenging to design than any other linear project or project in general; all projects have their specific challenges. What I am trying to express is that the variability of a single transmission line project can be extensive which is what I enjoy most.
In addition, I do believe that transmission line design is a combination of art and science, like brewing. If you put two designers on a single project, they will likely come up with two different designs. A person’s design style is definitely an aspect of each project. Although the artful aspect is beginning to decrease with the latest design software, it’s still there. It was much more of an art back when lines were designed on long rolls of paper with catenary templates, ground survey centerlines, and side profiles. I wasn’t around for that but can appreciate the engineer-- dare I say artists-- who worked this way. I have been able to see the shift in the industry from ground survey to LiDAR survey data and finite element analysis and GIS programs and it is amazing how detailed we can get in our designs. It’s easy to forget that these are still just models since they behave so similar to real world conditions.
Transmission lines are obviously large-scale projects, and the engineering combines some of the more fundamental aspects of civil, structural, electrical, and mechanical engineering with a dash of environmental, land use, and construction management. In most industries these fields would be separated, but in transmission line engineering a single engineer or small team can cover a majority of the requirements. I enjoy this aspect as I typically consider myself to have more of a jack-of-all trades personality. I may not know the finest details of how a bolt will shear when embedded in concrete, but I know generally that it will shear and what to consider when specifying that bolt, and then I can leave the details to the experts.
I really couldn’t ask for a more rewarding line of work for myself. The people I get to work with are great and there is a ton of opportunity in the industry right now. You get to see your designs constructed and at-large in the world. It is easy to point out a lattice steel tower driving down the road or a transmission line in a movie or photo and say to my kids, “That’s what daddy does.” It’s rewarding to say I work on the most expansive machine in the world. I truly feel my work makes a difference in the world. What more could you ask for?
I look forward to being a part of the energy and transmission line community as a whole and I appreciate all the assistance I’ll receive from those I interact with along the way. I hope to return the favor.
Thanks again to Steve for his eagerness to share his story and dedicate his time to this community as an official expert. If you’re curious about learning more about the transmission design process or any other aspect of the industry, be sure to check in with Steve. And if you see him posting or commenting around the community, be sure to welcome him and ask questions so you can learn even more! The value of Energy Central comes from our vast and interconnected network of utility professionals, so be sure to take full advantage.