Welcome Your New Expert Interview Series: Kip Fox, New Expert in the Grid Professionals Community
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- May 4, 2021 10:45 am GMTMay 4, 2021 10:53 am GMT
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Advocates for the grid have called out for a while how this critical infrastructure was being overlooked and neglected, but recently it appears that the tide is shifting. Federal and state political leaders are advocating for investment in the grid, new smart technologies are being applied to the holders of grid assets, and even consumers are taking more of an active interest in how they can help promote the health and reliability of grid systems.
The attention is overdue, but the mission is far from accomplished. We still have continued needs for the leaders in the industry to focus on what the future of the grid can, and should, be. One of those leaders is Kip Fox, President of Electric Transmission Texas, a joint venture between the subsidiaries of American Electric Power and Berkshire Hathaway Energy Company. In this role, Kip is helping to forge us to the necessary grid of tomorrow, and he recently became an official member of the Energy Central Network of Experts, meaning he’ll be continuing to bring us the great insights needed in this area.
As we welcome Kip as an official expert under the Grid Professionals Group, Kip agreed to sit down and chat about everything going on in this exciting field today. Read on to see my interview with Kip and understand the value he’ll be bringing to the rest of the Energy Central community!
Matt Chester: A main goal of this interview series is to ‘introduce’ you to our community, so I want to start by giving you the floor to do so. What’s your role in the utility industry and how did you get to where you are today?
Kip Fox: I'm the President of Electric Transmission Texas (ETT). We're an approximately $4 billion transmission-only entity in the ERCOT region of Texas. Our revenues run around $330 million a year, and our net income is somewhere in the $100 to $110 million range. We're subject to the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT) rules in Texas, and we are heavily involved in the RTO process with ERCOT. ETT just now getting through a lot of issues with the recent winter storms here in Texas. It’s been an interesting job. We have a very, very lean staff. ETT consists of 10 full-time employees with support from AEP Transmission employees and AEP Texas employees and about 1,800 contract and part-time employees to help us manage our 1,890 circuit miles of transmission around the state.
MC: On the topic of the winter storm in Texas and all the resulting fallout, what do you hope is the main takeaway that leaders have from everything that happened in ensuring a repeat does not occur?
KF: There are probably three things that need to occur in the future, in my opinion, especially at the ERCOT level. First, we have a very different philosophy of planning the system than the other regional transmission organizations do. As an energy only market where all transmission cost is shared, ERCOT’s position on economic planning is much more stringent than in the rest of the country. We basically socialize all transmission costs, and because we socialized transmission costs more than any other RTO, there's a higher wires charge. A change to the economic planning criteria will need to be addressed in the future.
Second, we need to change that process so that there is transmission adequacy to transport low cost, renewable energy from any place in the ERCOT footprint to any other place in the footprint. So, we need to work on those types of projects as we move toward a more reliable energy source future. I believe we've learned from the 2021 winter storm is that this won’t be a one-time occurrence. We had a lot of warnings before the winter storm. We had an ice storm in October that told us that, "Hey, the weather is changing, and we're seeing a lot more brutal cold weather in Texas." And we learned from that winter storm in October that you better have contractors and people available as weather starts moving in so that you can mobilize quickly, have parts available as well as be able to respond quickly to an emergency, no matter the weather conditions. Even before (winter storm Uri), ETT contracted some 20 different contractors in different parts of the state to be on call for us, especially as we saw the weather moving in.
And then the third thing I think we're learning is that it's not oversight that we need more of in ERCOT, it's more working together. One of the things that we've seen I’m encouraged about is seeing more utilities, cooperatives and municipals providing mutual assistance to somebody else. It's all our systems, so we need to help each other out a little bit better than we have before. Utilities tend to want to keep everything within house, and sometimes that's not the most efficient things to do. If I've got a crew in an area that needs help, I should be offering that crew to help them get their lines back in service so that we get the most customers in service.
MC: You also have some involvement with the education of the upcoming engineers that will be shaping the grid of tomorrow. Why is this involvement important to you, and what do you see as the key skills these energy leaders of tomorrow should be focusing on?
KF: , I think the technology is going to change our business. Historically, we used routine technology like reactors, SVC’s, capacity banks, etc. that really hasn't changed since Westinghouse standardized AC current for the grid. And now we're seeing how batteries are now operating for optimization within the system. We're seeing that we've got all kinds of new variable technology, software and electronic technology to help control frequency and control voltage, where we didn't have that happening before. And I think what I like to tell young engineers is to be very open because the next big step in the energy business is coming just around the corner, and we're going to have to change quickly to embrace that technology. With electric cars, there's going to be even higher demand on the system. And people only see an electric vehicle as basically something that needs to be charged at night. But it's also a source for a home to keep the power on if the lights go out.
So, how you use that technology is going to be critically important in the future. And the application of that technology is what they've got to look for creative ways to do. Our company is involved with Virginia Tech quite a bit (my own alma mater). And one of the things we look at is we want to make sure that there's a lot of creative thoughts. So, there's a lot more creative problem solving on known technologies. It's focusing on how to better use those technologies rather than the typical solving of equations and kind of learning fundamentals. We're looking for practical application of those things and using those applications in different ways.
MC: After spending multiple decades in this industry, you’ve no doubt seen transformation the likes of which you could never have expected when you started. With that lens, how do you view the future transformation of utilities—will it continue at this pace? Will the future of the industry look anything like it does today? And what lessons should we learn from having already experienced such great evolution?
KF: I think that the pace of change is only going to accelerate because those that are successful in adapting to change quickly are going to be successful in the marketplace here. And utilities typically are very slow to change. One of the things I think that needs to be understood is that you've got to keep up to date with all of the things that are happening in our industry. So, everything from new solar-type panels that are under development that can be used in much different ways than they are now instead of on the roof of the house or out in the middle of the field. They can be part of all kinds of different types of collection systems from on top of your car to laying a sheet out in an open field. All types of technology where we're more mobile.
I think the other thing that you're going to see is transfer of energy, not typically through the wires, that get probably through waves, energy waves, and those types of things. Whether it's microwaves transmitting power from one point to another, or satellites transferring power from one point to another. We're probably going to see that in my lifetime.
And then there's all kinds of new applications that we're seeing for energy storage devices - predominantly batteries. And even though lithium-ion is the technology of today, we don't know what's coming down around the corner. Lithium-ion technology is probably going to be the prevalent technology for the near future. So, get to understand that technology and how it works. That's critically important as well.
MC: What motivated you to get more involved with the Energy Central community? How do you hope your role as a member of our Network of Experts will help your fellow utility professional?
KF: One thing I love about Energy Central, besides the interesting articles, is Energy Central Jobs helped me in my career quite a bit. One day a friend sent me an application or a link to a job on EnergyCentralJobs.com that was posted. I applied for it. And lo and behold, it was a great fit for me. That's really how I got involved. I also encourage some of my protégés to do the same. If they're looking for new challenges and they're not getting it in their current job, Energy Central Jobs is a great place to start and see what's out there, as well as gauge what you're worth in the marketplace. And I see Energy Central as a resource for keeping us abreast of what the market value of certain skillsets are. So really appreciate that piece of Energy Central.
I wanted to get involved with the community because I'm at a point in my career where I've learned a lot, and I'm still learning as I go on, but I don't want people to forget how we got to this point. I'm a firm believer in if we don't learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it again. And there's a lot of mistakes we've made in the past that we got to try and avoid in the future. Energy policy is one of those things. Technology will naturally come and naturally change. But there are still some tried and true things that happen out in the field. Today, we still use a lot of the old technology, so what people don't realize is when things break, sometimes we have to go back to the old technology just to get a quick fix to run. So it's always good to keep abreast of what's available in the past and what worked in the past as well. And we need to instill that knowledge to the younger generation as they're taking over responsibility for the grid.
MC: This has been really informative, Kip. As we wrap up, what’s the final message you want to share with our community?
KF: There's actually two things I wanted to really get across, Matt. The first is don't be afraid to reach out and talk to other people. I reach out to different companies all the time. I probably learn more from my competitors, and they have great solutions on problems that I have that they've already solved. So, this is a great community to do that. Reach out and talk about those things.
The other piece I think that folks need to know is that it's a network connection. As you network with the folks that are involved here, opportunities will come up as businesses change. The ultimate compliment is, "Hey man, I remember that guy I met through Energy Central that had this solution I need." Or a networking opportunity, it gives me an opportunity to say, "Hey, I got this job opening. I think you'd be good for, would you like to come in and talk about it?" Again, Energy Central is a great community for networking.
Thanks to Kip Fox for joining me for this interview and for providing a wealth of insights an expertise to the Energy Central Community. You can trust that Kip will be available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see him across the platform.