In a Q&A with Public Power Current, Allen Robbins, General Manager and CEO at Sevier County Electric System in Tennessee, discusses leadership lessons, highlights projects underway (including a large scale solar project) and details what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the utility and the broader public power community in the next five to 10 years.
Public Power Current: In your book, “Trial By Fire,” you detail how Sevier County Electric System in late 2016 had to unexpectedly deal with a sudden, unexpected surge of wildfires. You had only been General Manager of the electric system for four months.
Can you describe how Sevier County Electric System was able to successfully respond to these wildfires and what leadership lessons you drew from the experience?
Robbins: It was perseverance and intestinal fortitude of the employees of Sevier County Electric System that contributed most to our response to the Gatlinburg Wildfires.
I was promoted to General Manager on August 9, 2016 but I did not become the leader of Sevier County Electric System until November 28, 2016.
In the span of 12 hours I was making decisions with our line personnel I never imagined having to make. In times past the final decision making was left with someone else. Now the buck stopped with me.
During the chaos of this tragic event I had to display a calm and focused demeanor no matter how I was truly feeling on the inside. Hopelessness and inadequacy crept into my psyche but I quickly suppressed those thoughts and feelings because failure was not an option. Thank God that I had two things going for me, an outstanding staff and three predecessors that expressed solid foundational leadership skills that I was able to draw on. All three visited with me at different times offering their support.
The one thing they all said was none of us has ever experienced anything of this magnitude and that this will definitely make me a better manager. So to George Seaton, Howard Murrell and Rick Harrell I thank you for leadership and positive influences you had on me.
Public Power Current: The recent extreme weather events in Texas and elsewhere have highlighted reliability and power grid issues for utilities. Can you discuss some recent examples of how Sevier County Electric System has successfully responded to power outages caused by weather?
Robbins: On December 23, 2020 we had a volatile windstorm that resulted in multiple small outages throughout the day. Then on December 24, 2020 we had a snowstorm that brought 8” of snow to the lower areas of our service territory but much more in the higher elevations that include the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The two major challenges we had, aside from the snowstorm, was the Christmas Holiday and COVID-19.
First and foremost, what helped us in our response that turned a 7 to 10-day outage event into a 4 to 5 day event was the relationships with other public power utilities both in the Tennessee Valley and the Southeast Region.
The mutual aid agreements we have in place with TVPPA and APPA are so beneficial to a utility in need. It takes a lot of stress out of acquiring help.
Another important measure that we have put in place to help mitigate a Texas issue in Sevier County is on August 23, 2019, we signed the Long Term Partnership agreement with TVA to further ensure equitable rates and stability for our customers for many years to come.
Public Power Current: Are there specific projects underway at Sevier County Electric System that you would like to highlight?
Robbins: Sevier County is known as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with approximately 15 million visitors per year. Keeping up with the growth has had many challenges but it has borne out many opportunities for us as well.
Currently we are working on our first large scale solar project with Sevier Solid Waste using one of their Class 3 landfills. Sevier Solid Waste has state of the art digesters that processes the County’s garbage into mulch. They receive visits from all over the world and we felt like utilizing one of their landfills for solar would further demonstrate our commitment to protecting the environment and having a diverse power mix.
Secondly, we are working on a 10-mile transmission line project with one of our neighboring utilities to bring more redundancy and reliability to both of our service territories. Thirdly, through Seven States Power Corporation we have installed 7 EV chargers throughout Sevier County with 4 to 5 more to be installed in the near future.
Public Power Current: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Sevier County Electric System and the broader public power community in the next five to 10 years? How is Sevier County Electric System positioned to successfully meet these challenges?
Robbins: Retirement of skilled personnel, cyberattacks, DER, energy storage, updating grid infrastructure, unpredictable weather patterns and many more emerging technologies will all be challenges for us over the next 5 to 10 years. All of these are most definitely challenges, but where there are challenges there is opportunity.
To meet the loss of our retiring skilled workforce we have partnered with the Sevier County Economic Development Council, Walter State Community College and trade school institutions in developing a curriculum that addresses the needs of electric utilities like Sevier County Electric System.
Tennessee College of Applied Technology has a 6 to 10-month lineman curriculum that prepares the individual with entry level electric utility skill sets equivalent to a first year Apprentice.
We are the energy experts and we need to ensure our customers know this as well. So instead of resisting rooftop solar or energy storage we have worked with and tried to inform our customers on the best applications that will meet their needs.
Cyberattacks are all about training. There is no way we can prevent cyberattacks but what we can do is try to prevent cyberattack success. This requires a lot of employee training on being vigilant and not just sometimes but all the time. Beyond this I really don’t like talking about it. Brings too much attention to the issue.
Over the past 10 years we have rebuilt several of our distribution circuits, making them more robust by integrating newer components such as line sectionalizers and automated switch gear.