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Welcome New Expert Interview Series: Steve Wickman, New Expert in the Transmission Professionals Community

image credit: Energy Central

The transmission sector of the utility industry continues to undergo changes and become a key area of focus: from integrating smart technologies to upgrading existing infrastructure to improve resilience and decrease the levels of risk. Because of this, as the network of experts continues to grow at Energy Central, we’re thrilled to continue to integrate new experts with a wide variety of experiences, expertise, and perspectives in the Transmission Professionals Group.

Steve Wickman is the latest expert we’re adding to that group of experts, who brings with him almost four decades of experience and hands-on experience in every corner of the transmission industry. We’re excited to introduce Steve to the Energy Central community as the newest expert in the Transmission Professionals Group via the latest installment in our ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series’:

Matt Chester: Thanks for doing this Steve—we’re so excited to have you as our newest expert in the Transmission Professionals Community. For our readers and subscribers to understand a bit better where your expertise is coming from, can you give an overview of your background—who you are, where you came from, and how you got to be a respected voice when it comes to utility transmission?

Steve Wickman: Who, where, how…well first of all I grew up in suburban Chicago and went to college in the middle of Iowa at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. As a high schooler, I was interested in the radio broadcast industry.  Listened to shortwave radio stations from all over the world and was active with the on-air radio station at my high school.  This radio interest led me to the EE program for college.  I ended up getting a job as a meter reader for the local electric utility.  Not exactly in the broadcast industry, as I had been dreaming for my future career, but it created the bug in me to become a “60-hertz guy” instead of an “88.1MHz to 107.9MHz guy.” The exposure to the overhead/underground crews working out of the same office as I did, listening to the crews and operating folks on the 2-way radio in my meter reading truck as well as “following the overhead distribution lines” to find my way from meter to meter kind of stuck. 

So, junior and senior years I took all the power option courses Iowa State offered and I became a power engineer.  Job hunting the end of my senior year focused on electric utilities, equipment manufacturers, etc.  In the end of it all, Commonwealth Edison back home in Chicago came up with the best opportunity for me as a new graduate.  So, in June 1976 my career with ComEd started.  This large traditional vertically integrated investor-owned utility offered many opportunities in the wires businesses—distribution, transmission, substation areas as well as their fossil and nuclear power plants.  My first permanent assignment with the company was in their “Operational Analysis Department” (OAD we were called).  It was hands-on experience with the equipment as well as learning how to direct the Substation Construction crews who were doing the craftwork for us engineering folks.  This first job assignment was the best way to learn the ins and outs of the industry that gave me great insight in the rest of my career.  I moved on to several other assignments with the company. 

Next in my career was supervising several different distribution engineering groups.  A big jump for a 30-year-old young man to supervise people much older and experienced in the distribution design end of the business.  But, following all those wires in the Northwoods helped me understand and recognize all the components of the overhead distribution system and in regards to managing people in an area I never worked, I developed a knack and reputation for listening to and relying on my subordinates to help me figure out how to manage our team.  I had many of my direct reports tell me I was “the best boss they ever had” because of how I worked with everybody in a collaborative fashion.  I then moved on to become a second-level manager back in the Substations end of the business, as a General Foreman in several different geographic Divisions of the company.  My knowledge of the substations from my early job and my collaborative management style led to a successful and rewarding time in this area of the company.  The latter part of my career with ComEd I got involved in some of the newer industry techniques of Project Management and Work Management.  I ended my full-time professional career as a Work Planner (another newer industry buzz term!) for the same department I started in (OAD-but now called Testing Group or TG) but in a different geographic region of the company.  But, my many years of knowing who for what and the collaborative style I had established through my career, made my managers very pleased.  I was responsible for tracking all the scheduled work the Field Engineers in our group as well as managing any emergencies-equipment trip outs, failures, etc. from the equipment testing perspective.  Often times I would get the word that something tripped out and my report to the boss was usually along the lines of “thus and such has tripped off and I have so and so assigned to the job and I have notified the engineering support teams of the failure, etc.”  In other words, I didn’t need their direction to determine what needed to be done.

37 years with ComEd led me to my retirement job with Transmission and Distribution Services (aka TDS).  The owners of this company were good acquaintances of mine while at ComEd.  They knew of my vast knowledge of the electric substation apparatus, upon which they perform oil and SF6 gas leak repairs.  While their personnel were very skilled at the leak repair techniques, they weren’t necessarily 100% up on the ins and outs of transformers and circuit breakers.  Thus, my new niche in the industry is to impart my hands-on knowledge to the benefit TDS’ repair work as well as sharing what I can via the Energy Central community.

 

MC: The view of transmission in utilities is obviously changing in recent years, with more distributed an on-site generation taking hold while existing grid systems get smarter. Is this type of a change that you saw coming earlier on in your career when the technology was nascent or has the speed and depth of these changes been a surprise to you?

SW: Changes in the industry…wow…going back to a day before “dot com,” personal computers, e-mail, cell phones in the world in general, plus in the industry electromechanical relays vs microprocessor relays, supervisory control or manned substations vs SCADA, etc.  The industry has EXPLODED with technology.  The real-time availability of so much data from individual customer load data to real-time matching of generation from many, many different sources have allowed for so much to happen in the industry.  In the old days, a vertically integrated utility matched its load to its generation and the tie lines were for an emergency loss of a unit or a line, not for wheeling power across the entire country.  Today, with the real-time data available, on-site generation, smart grid schemes and such, it’s the future that really is what will be the biggest surprise to me.  I really enjoy hearing what is going on in the industry with future systems being developed.

I also enjoy the “what was once old is now new” in the industry!  Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station and the locally connected customers were the first distributed/smart grid installation so to speak.  Granted it was DC and interconnecting and going further and further away from the generation was a limiting factor.  But the evolution started small and grew into the interconnected grid we have today.  My other favorite is the evolution of the automobile.  In 1917, 38% of all the vehicles on the road were electric!  And how soon will that be true again?  Plus, the challenges this puts to the electric power industry about capacity and demand are unimaginable!  Additionally, situations such as wildfires in California and the need to de-energize transmission lines to prevent sparking these fires is leading to new innovative solutions—more local generation to allow the lines to be de-energized.  Again, vertically integrated localized networks perhaps instead of wheeling energy great distances on HV transmission lines.

MC: As the technology has upgraded and changed, have you noticed a cultural and behavioral change taking place within the transmission community?

SW: Cultural and behavioral changes taking place…reliability—the customer used to at least tolerate an outage now and then.  His analog clocks did not all have to be reset every time the feeder tripped and reclosed.  Everything today relies on electricity.  You cannot light your gas stove without the electronic sparker igniting the gas.  I’m typing this on my computer, not a manual typewriter, it needs power to allow me to keep working.  Plus, the customer wants immediate updates on when their power will be restored.  The utilities are being responsive to these customer demands.  Social media is taking on a huge role in the industry communications with the customer.  For an old-timer like me, you called the power company when your lights went out, now you can text them or Tweet them or Facebook them.

 

MC: Looking forward on where the transmission sector may go in the future, are there any particular challenges that keep you up at night? What are the problems that we’re going to have to solve that maybe we’re not ready for, or maybe the light hasn’t even yet been shined enough on these coming challenges?

SW: What keeps me up at night…really two major issues. First, Input of new hires into the industry.  Some universities have a bit of a BSEE-Power curriculum, but most these days have a EE-Computer Engineering program.  And how actively are the utilities working with the schools to train and recruit the Power Engineers of the future?  I tell every young person I talk with who is looking at engineering as a profession to study EE and get into the Power Industry.  There is a need to know the power basics, but the technology is exploding such that every little bit of the power system is a programmable device that needs someone to design, program, install, troubleshoot, repair it.  Also, is the industry doing the right job of being prepared to replace the retiring baby boomers?  Are they recruiting, training, mentoring the new folks before the old knowledge goes away?  Is the industry culture doing the right job of making sure the old-timer non-dot.com types are properly mentoring the dot.coms in the traditional power industry factors?  Plus, on the craft side of the business—we need to maintain a steady flow of lineman, cable splicers, substation electricians, etc.  There will be a need for these traditional, and typically pretty well-paying craft jobs forever.

Second, environmental issues.  Specifically, greenhouse gases and in particular SF6 gas in electrical apparatus—circuit breakers and GIS installations.  SF6 has become the standard for the high voltage transmission-type circuit breakers in the industry, but it also is one of the worst greenhouse gases known to man.  The industry needs to take the lead on controlling the SF6 emissions particularly by standardizing on a new non-SF6 device and also aggressively addressing the release of SF6 from existing apparatus.  This industry has had in my perspective two interesting environmental challenges where the solution created a new set of problems.  First was the advent and subsequent replacement of PCB oil.  Developed as the best solution for eliminating oil fires in faulted apparatus, but had an environmental problem.  The PCB oils have been effectively eliminated and cleaned up in the industry.  Second is the advent of SF6 as the best substitution for oil-filled HV apparatus.  And the SF6 elimination/substitution will be the challenge for the next generation of power industry folks.

 

MC: What brought you to the Energy Central community, both as a reader and now as an expert? What value do you think the platform affords the industry?

SW: I started reading Energy Central online publications about 5 years ago.  I always subscribed to and read cover to cover the traditional Power Industry magazines you could subscribe to for free with the reader service cards where you could circle the numbers for more information.  I came across Energy Central as I started my “retirement career” with TDS as a source of industry information as well as a mechanism for communicating with others in the industry. I feel the platform affords the industry a place to ask questions, get answers, and share our expertise with one another.  I guess that’s the definition of “networking” yes?  Energy Central is a good clearinghouse for those of us in the industry to “network” with one another!

 

 

Please join me in thanking Steve Wickman for sharing his experience with the community in this interview and continually as an expert in our Transmission Professionals Group. Now that you know Steve’s background, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask him questions in the comments sections or pick his brain in that way.

 

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

Discussions

Noam Mayraz's picture
Noam Mayraz on Dec 31, 2019 6:22 pm GMT

Matt Chester - Thanks a lot for your introduction of Steve Wickman, of Chicago, a Iowa State University, Ames, Iwoa, graduate, with 43 years of relevant experience.  This is indeed a grat addition to the Energy Central Team.  

 

Having done a few related projects recently, 138 kV substation for ABB in New Castle, PA for Elwood Quality Steel; the North Shore (of Lake Superior), for Siemens, a 115 kV SVC Plus (a power factor mitigation system) for Minnesota Power who is shutting a couple of coal-fired nearby; and currently completing 230 kV substation for a 75 MW solar PV for FPL near Ft. Myers, Florida I have a different take on the issues.

 The transmission system, aka T&D (transmission and distribution) is well and functioning with all the new technologies being implemented on a steady pace.  Grids are being expended by regulated utilities as part of their capital investment that is qualified to be added to the rate base, per each state’s prevailing regulations. My professional observation is that the issue at hand is the mix of the electrical energy being fed into the transmission system.  The renewables, namely wind and solar, have limited ability to provide power factor and/or frequency control – a transmission quality issue, neither reliability - being weather dependent. That makes the transmission system more fragile and less reliable as more and more base load generating facilities are dropping off the transmission lines; not because of pollution, but rather simple economic considerations.   Keeping steam turbines (Nukes, coal / gas fired or combined cycle’s) hot, aka ‘spinning reserve’ for a back up power for a rainy day (literally & figuratively) has to be paid somehow, for sure by the taxpayers and ratepayers. In California the end users are paying $0.285 kWh (just below $30 MWh) where in Texas we pay around $0.09 kWh ($9 MWh).  This 3-fold should be the transmission group concern, sooner than later grids will collapse on too hot or too cold days, when the supply would fail to meet the demand, no matter how sophisticated the transmission system might be.  That’s all there is to that. 

The root cause is obvious: Too fast, too much of renewables, wind and solar, are impacting the transmission capacity and quality.  I prefer fixing the cause vs. the symptoms, but that is just me.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 1, 2020 1:03 pm GMT

Thanks for your comment, Noam-- I agree that Steve's expertise will be quite valuable to our community's discussions. I'll be curious to see what his response to your observations are!

Steve Wickman's picture
Steve Wickman on Jan 3, 2020 8:37 pm GMT

Hello Noam....thanks for your comments!  I salute your "continued energy" to working in the field all over the country!  You appear to be a few years "senior" to me and you're still hitting it pretty hard looks like!  I agree with your analysis of the mix of the generation being fed into the system and the potential quality/reliability issues.  The magic buzzword these days is "green energy"...but the renewables cannot carry it all, yet...I agree it's too fast, too much...fixing the cause vs. reacting to the symptoms is the way to go for sure!

I think it may take a "catostrophic event" ie major blackout, or load shed event to get everyone's attention!

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