Community Engagement

At the end of the Oregon Trail

In late March, I went to Portland, Oregon. I have been there quite a few times before, but the City of Roses is always impressive. It has great natural beauty, with the downtown on the bank of the Willamette River, and a walking path that takes you from one bank to another across some picturesque bridges. Of course, it is also a well-known foodie paradise—I was there during their equivalent of Restaurant Week, so the downtown dining establishments were packed. And where else does your restaurant bill come with a 3% “Health and Wellness Surcharge”?

I went to Portland to speak to the Nuclear Nonoperating Owners’ Group’s (NNOG) 2019 Conference. When I say NNOG, you might say “huh”? Which was what I said the first time I was invited to speak to this group, back in the 1990s. They explained to me then that many of the nation’s fleet of nuclear units have multiple owners. Joint ownership was one way to help get such large and expensive generation projects constructed. The minority owners do not generally operate the units, although they often have employees who are located at the plant site, and they scrutinize unit operations and costs carefully, since they have to pay their allocated share. Because they have interests distinct from the operators/ majority owners, they formed NNOG. It has been a great training, educational and networking group for them over the years. Many of those non-operating owners are public power utilities and rural electric cooperatives, so when they first asked me to come speak to them, I (then an energy lawyer in private practice and always on the lookout for the next client) said yes. 

I had some trepidation as a lawyer (and interdisciplinary studies (!) major) about making my first presentation to NNOG, especially because I was supposed to be talking about current FERC issues. I figured I would not have much in common with an audience of nuclear experts, and they would not much care about FERC. It was true that they were indeed a wonky bunch—some of the presentations about the details of nuclear plant operations left my head spinning. But I enjoyed the time I spent with them, and learned a lot. And for reasons not quite clear to me, they liked my presentation enough to invite me back many times over the years. (One engineer told me after that first presentation that he had expected me to be “boring,” but in fact, my talk was “not bad.”)

Once I became the CEO of the Association, it was much harder to carve out the time to go to the NNOG Conference. But this year, Larry Blaylock of CPS Energy, a flagship APPA member, asked me to speak many months in advance. And I knew it would likely be my final opportunity to hang out with them, so I said yes. I was not disappointed. They had great presentations on all things nuclear, from an NRC presentation on enforcement to a presentation by Mason Baker of UAMPS about the NuScale SMR project to a Congressional update by NEI Lobbyist Robert Powers. And the same afternoon I presented, Dennis Pidherny of Fitch gave a great presentation on Fitch’s evaluation of nuclear utility risks. Having seen Dennis in New York just two weeks before, it was ironic to run into him again clear on the other side of the country. 

I talked about the challenges and opportunities that new technologies present for public power (in fact, all electric) utilities, as well as FERC’s and DOE’s recent proceedings on fuel security and resilience, and Congress’s increasing interest in climate issues. Sadly, I missed their field trip the prior day to NuScale’s facility—it sounded like a great experience.  But attending the conference reminded me that if our nation is truly serious about reducing the carbon output associated with our power production, nuclear and other non-emitting resources such as hydro need to be in the mix.  

While I was in the neighborhood, I decided to rent a car and drive down to Eugene to visit the Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB). I had never been, and Susan Ackerman, a long-time Energy Bar Association comrade and former Oregon Public Utility Commissioner, is now EWEB’s Chief Energy Officer. Susan and I had a wonderful opportunity to catch up over lunch. Then we went to EWEB’s Engineering and Operations Center, a LEED certified building surrounded by wetlands--complete with beaver and nutria! 

Sue Kelly and Susan Ackerman of EWEB

I spoke with EWEB’s managers group at its weekly meeting. It was great fun to meet with them and talk about the Association resources available to all of them because EWEB is a member. And they asked some great questions. Like so many of our members, they are working hard to meet the rising expectations of their customers for new and greener products and services, while keeping rates affordable to those who struggle to pay their bills.

As I travelled back North on I-5 to Portland, I reflected on the great people who work in public power. Not only the “experienced” ones like Susan, but the crop of smart and committed employees that are coming up behind her. If we can continue to attract people like this to public power, I have no doubt we will do as well in this century as we did in the past one.