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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Welcome Glenn Steiger, New Expert in the Utility Management Community

image credit: Energy Central

The business of utilities is as complex, if not more, than the technology that runs the sector. A robust understanding of the markets, the regulations, the customer impacts, and more are all critical to make sure that the essential goals of every utility are met: reliable, affordable, and clean power being delivered to their customers when and where they need it.

While the goals are straightforward enough, managing the utility in such a way that doesn’t compromise any one goal to achieve another is the constant challenge and its why keen and experienced leadership is needed. Joining our Energy Central Utility Management group today as a part of our Network of Experts is Glenn Steiger, an Executive Consultant with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

Glenn brings with him decades of experience all across the utility industry, giving him a unique perspective and an invaluable level of insight into what utilities of today and tomorrow must do to remain steadfast towards those evergreen goals. I had the pleasure of picking Glenn’s brain on some of the most pressing issues facing utilities today as he participated in our Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.

Matt Chester: I love kicking off these interviews by having you introduce yourself to our readers. Can you please give the overview version of who you are, what your history is in the utility sector, and what it is you do today?

Glenn Steiger: I started out in the utility industry back in 1970 so been in the business over 50 years. I started my career with Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) in New Jersey and that was on a whim, literally, by just taking an interview while in college. My first position was as a sales engineer. In those days, we were selling both the use of electric and gas. Of course, that changed in the early 70s when we had the first energy crisis, so the whole idea of selling energy kind of went by the boards for quite a while. I converted my work into energy conservation rather than selling.

I left PSE&G after four years and went to an electric co-op for six years which was quite a bit different than working for a very large utility. Very, different culture, very different organization, and I actually learned probably more about the overall business there than I did anywhere else because, in a small utility, I had to. I had to do pretty much everything associated with engineering and operations so there was a lot to learn.

I moved on from there to Jersey Central Power and Light where I spent the longest amount of time in my career. I moved around and was open to taking on new challenges in some very, very tough times for Jersey Central and the parent company GPU because that was right after the Three Mile Island accident. GPU was the overall owner of Three Mile Island. I believe that the Three Mile accident which occurred in 1979, had a profound effect on the industry. I started up a cogeneration division at Jersey Central after the 1987 PURPA Act which allowed for what was known as qualifying facilities. And then from there, I ultimately ran the regulatory and legislative group for Jersey Central and was responsible for much of the negotiations related to the restructuring of the utility industry in the mid-90s.

I left Jersey Central in the late 90s, moved to Arizona, opened a branch of a consulting firm here, and learned the energy industry in the western United States in a hurry. Since that time, I have run a number of municipal and public power districts here in the western United States, with one exception. I ran the electric division for the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California. I was general manager of Glendale Water and Power in California and ultimately Alameda Municipal Power. I took a two-year hiatus and went back to the East Coast to run the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company. I spent two years there and realized I really liked the Southwest and so I came back to Arizona. That’s where I’ve been since.

Ultimately, I retired as general manager of Alameda Municipal Power in California and when I did, I was asked by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to help them with a number of issues and that’s where I am today.

 

MC: In your career, you’ve held important positions at several different utilities. Reflecting on your experiences at different organizations, would you say each utility you worked for was more alike or different?

GS: The answer to that question is, yes and no. I love to actually talk about this because as I’ve looked back on my career, there was a point where I realized that I’ve worked in pretty much every single utility structure that there is. They all are, to one degree or another, different but, at the same time, the same. They’re all focused, obviously, on keeping the lights on. But that’s where it starts to differentiate.

Obviously, the investor-owned utilities have an obligation to their stockholders. That’s important since it drives a number of decisions for those utilities. Going from a larger investor-owned utility to a small co-op, which has essentially its primary obligation to its customers who are also its stockholders; that’s a big difference in terms of culture and priorities. When you’re dealing with a customer in a co-op, you’re dealing with a shareholder.

Moving back to an investor-owned like Jersey Central was interesting because a smaller investor-owned utility, it was part of a larger holding company. So as a part of a holding company, it also had different responsibilities and obligations, and the way it was structured back in the 70s and 80s was such that the holding company also had a number of services that it offered. The holding company has certain services it provides uniformly across different operating companies. In the case of GPU, it was Jersey Central Power and Light, Metropolitan Edison, and Pennsylvania Electric. So, as you can imagine, you’ve got the over-arching organization that’s creating various priorities for a number of different utilities in different States while trying to keep it more or less uniform, even though the States themselves had different priorities.

Going to a municipal utility creates a recognition of the priorities and the politics involved. City councils generally look through energy issues with a political lens. So, as a utility, any time there’s a major decision to be made within the utility, that’s also got to be run through the city governmental organization and generally with an eye towards politics and possibly toward other issues.

Finally, running a joint action agency is a whole different ballgame. At times it can be likened to herding cats. Joint action agencies have a number of different members; usually they’re municipals or co-ops, and each one of those has its own set of priorities and concerns, which may or may not align up with the others in the joint action agency. And so, to try to align all the different members of the joint action agency and move forward can, at times be a difficult task.

I think it’s important to know that there are differences among the various organizations. They all have the same focus; to keep the lights on. The investor-owned has an obligation to stockholders, while the co-ops, and the muni’s have two primary obligations. Basically, they focus ---keeping the lights on---but also keeping costs down as low as possible because there’s no profit motive there.

MC: You work today with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Are there any unique challenges that arise with NTUA that weren’t there with the more common IOU or municipality utility?

GS: I’ve worked my entire career in an industry where we have programmed our customers to expect the lights to be on all the time, so if the lights blink people get upset. Of course, if the lights go out for hours at a time or days at a time, that’s a huge inconvenience and people are very, very upset. That’s what most of my career was focused on; keeping those lights on all the time and maintaining the reliability at the highest possible level.

Now let’s go to a tribal organization. Today, Navajo has 15,000 families on The Navajo Nation that have no access to electric power at all. So, as you might imagine, the fact that just trying to get electric power to any of those particular families is a huge issue so that becomes the priority. If the lights blink, that’s not a major concern. People don’t get particularly upset on The Navajo Nation if the lights blink. They’re just very grateful to have lights at all, so it’s a different priority.

Working with a tribal culture is a little bit different, too. Essentially, the overall Navajo priorities are family, land, and livestock. So now, of those three, the one which affects the utility most is land. So, the acquisition of land rights is somewhat different and a bit more difficult on tribal land. even though, interestingly, the utility is actually an enterprise for The Navajo Nation. The idea of taking land that is Navajo is important and not to be taken lightly, so it takes longer to obtain right-a-way. It becomes more of an understanding of what’s it’s going to be used for and how long it’s going to be used.

I come back to this third priority of livestock. Grazing rights are important to the Navajo people and impacts what we as a utility can or can’t do because we can’t impact grazing rights. The priorities change from an investor-owned or a municipal to the tribal entity.

 

MC: Given your long experience in the utility industry, you’ve seen the growth of the clean energy movement from being more niche to being the important and central topic it is today. What surprised you the most about watching that journey unfold in front of you? Was there a moment in time where you remember seeing a result or a trend that made you realize that perhaps clean energy was real and was here to stay?  

GS: I see it probably possibly a little bit different than most. If I go back to my initial job with PSE&G, we saw a significant, almost overnight, change from the freewheeling sale of energy to ‘wow, wait a minute; we don’t have the sources we need any more so we’re going to have to do something a little bit different.’ What that did is, all of a sudden, it lit a bit of a fire within the utility industry to say ‘we can’t just arbitrarily keep going where we just build more power plants whether they’re coal or oil.’ Back in the early 70s that was how it worked; if you needed more, you built more. That was the initial change. We’ve got to start looking at a little bit more anyway at energy conservation; at least make it look like we are! And, I’m going to be honest, that’s the way utilities looked at it at that time.

So, let’s move to the Three Mile Island accident because that plant was one of those stalwarts of nuclear energy and represented the promise of cheaper generation. Of course, that changed overnight. It changed how we do business in terms of building new plants. The financial ability of that utility was completely hampered. So, it had to look at a different way of continuing to procure power because the growth rate was still high in terms of demand.

The company that owned Three Mile started to look at other ways to provide energy when and where it needed it without building new plants. One of the things it did was it created one of the very first split-savings markets to start to infiltrate the industry. The industry started to realize there’s other ways of doing business.

At the same time, the company that had this problem with Three Mile Island had to get serious about conservation because it just didn’t have the means to finance new construction. One of its tools had to be energy management and load management. That changed the industry into looking into a more serious way at energy conservation and other means of generating power

Moving ahead to 1987, we had PURPA and of course, that changed the business in terms of starting to open it up to other generation methods. Oil had already been mostly discounted so we became more heavily involved in natural gas. At the same time, the industry started to look little bit more at wind power here and there and some solar. Advancing to 1993, the wholesale market opened up, which started to make things a whole lot different from a power supply standpoint. That really opened the transition to energy markets. Markets really took off and we started to look at all sources of energy. Everything was open at that point. Coal was starting to plateau and throttled back a little bit. Natural gas was the fuel of choice and at that point renewable energy sources were being seriously considered. Some of the sources that were looked at were geothermal, wind, biomass, and a little more  solar.

This transition started to move along slowly and when we moved to the early 2000s we had the debacle of the California energy industry, which created a major shift in energy production and markets. I was directly involved in having to shift power supply for the municipal systems I was running to a much more aggressive form of renewable or zero carbon emission. And since that time, the move to zero-carbon has grown exponentially and matured. Being part of the California initiative in those days really opened my eyes to the fact that to protect our environment, we really need to do this. We can no longer rely on fossil fuels, and particularly coal. As much of a believer as I am in nuclear, the reality of it is that it is still politically untenable, and expensive. And so, it’s from that point right up to right now, I have focused on our energy production being shifted over towards renewable to the extent that we can, recognizing that we need a transition and it can not be accomplished overnight. You know, we’re not going to do it this year, and even by 2030, our energy supply will not be fully renewable; that’s not possible. But as long as we are on the track to do it, that should be our objective.

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Thanks so much to Glenn Steiger for participating in this conversation and for bringing value as a Utility Management Expert for Energy Central. Please welcome him with open arms when you see him around the community and be sure to ask his perspective, comment on his contributions, and make him feel welcome.

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.

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