Bill Johnson, the new general manager of the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, recently detailed how the utility has proactively worked to develop a strong reliability and safety culture at the Kansas-based public power utility.
That laser-like focus on safety and reliability resulted in BPU receiving the Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) Platinum award from the American Public Power Association in 2018.
In an interview with the American Public Power Association, Johnson also outlined his priorities as general manager, offered his thoughts on energy storage and described how BPU takes an all-of-the-above approach when it comes to renewable energy.
BPU’s Board of Directors in March announced that Johnson had been hired as the new general manager for the utility. Johnson has worked at BPU for more than 39 years and most recently served as manager of electric operations and technology.
BPU received Association RP3 Platinum award in 2018
The Association’s RP3 designation, which lasts for three years, recognizes public power utilities that demonstrate proficiency in four key areas: reliability, safety, workforce development and system improvement.
The measurements are based on sound business practices and a utility-wide commitment to safe and reliable delivery of electricity.
Johnson was asked to detail the steps that BPU has taken over the years to earn the RP3 Platinum award and discuss views on the importance of creating a culture at BPU that focuses on safety and reliability.
He said that BPU staff has focused its attention on system reliability. The utility wants to make sure that its investments continue to pay for themselves going forward.
“We’re constantly monitoring our electric T&D system through advanced use of technologies,” Johnson said. There has also been a revision of the utility’s design standards and BPU is heavily focused on asset management.
BPU wants to continue to build a self-healing network, especially on the distribution side. A self-healing network can help to minimize customer outages and boost reliability.
“We’re adding a lot of reclosers and other technology” to help mitigate power outages and reduce outage times, Johnson noted.
In addition, BPU overhauled its electric system restoration procedures and is continuing to expand fiber and wireless communication systems to improve utility operations.
With respect to safety, BPU now requires its crews to wear personal protection clothing and work gear and has upgraded many of its trucks with safety in mind.
Also, the utility has “placed a higher emphasis on not only safety, but employee training,” Johnson said. BPU’s human resources staff is more involved in this area and the utility’s transmission and distribution staff is taking more of a leadership role when it comes to safety and training.
In addition, BPU is continuing to “use our technology to better manage our workforce.” An example of this is the utility’s Auto Vehicle Locating (AVL) system, which gives BPU greater visibility in terms of where crews are located. In the case of an unexpected event where BPU crews are needed, the AVL system is an effective tool in being able to locate crews.
Johnson also discussed BPU’s growing renewable energy portfolio. BPU notes on its website that 45% of its energy comes through renewable resources. BPU is trending toward voluntarily achieving 50% or slightly above renewable energy capacity depending on future market prices.
Johnson was asked to describe how he envisions renewable energy fitting within BPU’s overall generation mix going forward.
Johnson noted that the utility has made a made a concerted effort over the past several years to analyze renewable energy sources as compared with more traditional resources.
He noted that in 2014, the Southwest Power Pool model changed from an Energy Imbalance Market to a fully integrated market. The move allowed distributed generation to be more feasible “than we saw in the past,” Johnson said in the interview.
He said that “with the current political, social, and environmental landscape,” renewable energy sources oftentimes have advantages over traditional energy resources and said that BPU expects that its green energy portfolio will continue to grow.
Johnson noted that more of the utility’s customers are interested in green energy. “Some of our large existing customers have corporate goals themselves,” he pointed out. “They want to become more and more green, so we’re trying to assist them to the best of our abilities.”
When it comes to renewable energy resources, BPU takes an all-of-the-above approach. “Today, we have a very diverse energy mix. We’re probably one of the leading utilities – especially our size – when it comes to renewables or green energy.”
BPU currently takes power from wind, hydro, landfill gas, solar, natural gas, as well as from a coal-fired power plant.
BPU expects certain fuel sources will likely grow within its portfolio as additional resources are needed.
The new general manager of BPU also offered his thoughts on energy storage.
Johnson noted that within the last five or six years, BPU considered the idea of a utility-scale storage project, but the utility could not justify it on a cost basis.
Since that time, storage technology has improved, he noted. “We’re continuing to watch it and I certainly do have an interest in where it may land and one day it may have a place in this utility,” Johnson said in the interview.
Johnson said that he has several priorities in his new position including, among other things, a focus on managing current and future generation needs, improving liquidity and debt coverage for the public power utility, strengthening customer service and communication with key stakeholders and addressing aging infrastructure issues.
With respect to recent generation developments, BPU in February announced plans to cease operation of two electric generating units at its Quindaro Power Station in late 2019. The units were brought online in 1965 and 1971.
Based on the findings of a recent feasibility study and other factors, BPU management determined that the steam electric generating units are no longer viable, efficient, or necessary to operate in today’s marketplace.
Johnson worked his way up through the ranks at BPU
Johnson began his career at BPU in an entry-level position and worked his way up through the ranks into an executive level position prior to being appointed general manager.
So what advice would he give to people just starting out in the power industry who are interested in following a similar path to a leadership role in a utility?
Johnson prefaced his answer by noting that “it took me 39 years,” so he is not sure that people starting their careers today are willing to make that type of long-term commitment.
“I often speak to a lot of our employees, especially the ones that are just entering into the power industry,” he noted.
In those discussions, Johnson points out all the “tremendous upside opportunities” in the power sector, “but I also talk about all the challenges that are also present because the job markets are changing, the power industry’s changing. It’s not like it was when I started years ago.” At the same time, “I never had the opportunities that these young people are enjoying today.”
People interested in following a leadership path similar to Johnson’s need to be prepared for hard work and making sacrifices, he said in the interview. They also need to learn how to accept criticism, “sometimes even rejection. But they need to remain focused on what their goals are and continue to work towards achieving those” through steps such as expanding their education “or working outside the areas they were hired into to broaden their knowledge of what utility operations are all about.”
Johnson’s previous position at the utility included directing BPU electric operation and technology division activities including but not limited to, electric transmission and distribution, electric engineering, information technology, telecommunications, and fleet maintenance.
BPU to host Association lineworkers rodeo in 2020
Johnson has been very supportive of the utility’s plan to host the Association’s annual lineworkers rodeo, which will take place in Bonner Springs, Kansas in 2020. He will be directing the local team in their efforts in putting on the 20th annual event.
Johnson is well aware of the benefits of participation in the Association’s rodeo through his previous role as head of the utility’s electric operation and technology division, which houses BPU’s line workers.
Over his career, Johnson has sponsored many large utility projects including modernizing BPU’s electric infrastructure and has played a key role in introducing some of the utility’s most advanced enterprise technology systems designed to improve utility operations.
BPU serves approximately 65,000 electric and 51,000 water customers, primarily in Wyandotte County, Kansas.