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."
They usually walk away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.