Traffic cop on the Philly area's electrical grid can't afford mistakes

Andrew Ott, president and chief executive office of PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in 13 states and the District of Columbia, in front of the PJM's control room. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

ANDREW L. OTT

  • Home: Philadelphia area.
  • Diplomas: Penn State University, associate's degrees in mining and electrical engineering; bachelor’s in electrical engineering; Villanova, master’s in applied statistics.
  • On being 6’5”: The tall person tends to be the one people notice. But if then you say something stupid, it doesn’t help you.
  • Hobby: Collects canceled stamps. His collection, which includes his father’s, “is enormous.”
  • PJM INTERCONNECTION
  • What: Revenue-neutral for-profit regional transmission organization coordinates the movement of electricity in 13 states. Employs 650.
  • Members: 990 utilities and major users, such as Walmart.
  • Annual billings: $39.0 billion
  • Say watt: 176,569 megawatt generating capacity with peak demand at 165,492 megawatts.

When Andrew L. Ott, 54, grows up, he’d like to be a weather man.

“You can be wrong 90 percent of the time and nobody cares,” said Ott, chief executive of PJM Interconnection, the electrical supply distribution network that is celebrating its 90th anniversary.

The agency that Ott leads can’t afford to make mistakes. PJM Interconnection, based in Audubon, Montgomery County, coordinates the movement of electricity in 13 states, plus Washington. Big utilities, such as PECO and PSE&G, are linked through PJM’s grid through  high-voltage transmission lines. They buy and sell electricity to and from each other through PJM.

One false move and it’s lights out for some or all of the 65 million people the grid serves. If the weather knocks out a power substation, PJM uses its network of transmission lines to reroute power to homeowners and business.

“We’re like the air traffic controller of the power grid,” Ott said, coordinating the use, generation and transportation of electricity. "We don’t own any of the assets. Our job is to coordinate across multiple utilities."  

When you’re at a party and tell someone what you do for a living, what happens?

They usually walk away.

By now, most of March’s snow has melted. How did the storm impact PJM? 

It impacted some areas of the distribution system, but there was little impact on the high-voltage transmission grid that PJM manages. When there is a big storm, we prepare by analyzing potential impacts and coordinating with transmission owners to schedule the transmission grid and generation fleet in a conservative manner. That puts us in the best starting point to minimize impacts. When a storm is approaching, I feel a sense of duty to be sure we are prepared, but I also feel confident in the professionalism of my staff.

How about the 2014 polar vortex? 

It was significant because of the duration of extreme cold weather, a condition we had not seen in years. A significant amount of power generation equipment failed because of the extreme cold and fuel shortages. We were in a tense situation for a few days because our power reserve margins were at critical levels and below our comfort level.  But all of us remained calm. We do not panic, but there is a lot of stress. 

President Trump talks about a coal renaissance. What do you think?

For 80 years, burning coal to generate electricity and for heat has been a very dependable resource.  But, even if we, as a country, said, "We love coal. We’re headed back," the challenge is that all technological advancements have been in solar panels and gas.  The new gas-fired power plants being installed today burn gas with the efficiency to convert to electricity at 65 percent. With coal, the best in the world is 40 percent. 

Wow. Why?

In the U.S., the big build on coal plants was 40 years ago. Today we’re building gas plants. We’re building windmills. We’re building solar. When you build a lot of something, it gets better and better. So, no matter what we do to make it easier to mine coal, nobody is spending research dollars on how we can more efficiently burn coal.   

If it’s so inefficient, why bother? 

What he’s saying, I think, is that we have significantly inhibited the ability to mine coal. He’s postulating there’s unnecessary over-regulation of clean air, clean water and we’re going to dial some of those regulations back. You’re going to see an increase in exports.  We’ll mine it here, but send it to China. Now we’re sending it to Europe. 

You worked in a coal mine, right? 

As a surveyor. My first degree was in mining engineering. I worked there for six months. I’m 6 foot 5.  The coal seam was 4 foot 2. You can’t make that work. So, I decided I needed to go back to school.    

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.