Interview with Gil Quiniones, President and CEO of NYPA

The following are the lightly edited transcripts from an interview by Eric Vettel (President of the American Energy Society) of Gil Quiniones – mechanical engineer, self-proclaimed energy-history nerd, and current president and CEO of the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the nation’s largest state-owned electric utility (interview conducted in one session on January 31, 2018).

 

Speaker 1 (Eric Vettel):  As a trained historian, I would like to begin this interview with a question about historical context – what I like to call “a 30,000-foot question”: the 4th industrial revolution is all around us – IoT, AI, machine learning, self-driving cars, crypto-currencies….  Is the power sector going through a similar revolution, and if so, how in the world does a utility like the NYPA keep up?

 

Speaker 2 (Gil Quiniones): The New York Power Authority has always been innovative, right from the very beginning. When Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York State he created the Power Authority Act, which was the statute that harnessed hydropower throughout the state of New York. And in fact, when FDR became president, the Power Authority Act served as the template for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Power Authority and the Bonneville Power Authority. And not long after, in the mid-1950s, we built the Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence River, straddling the border between the United States and Canada – the dam supplies water to two adjacent power stations, the 912 MW St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project and Canada’s 1,045 MW R.H. Saunders generating station. In addition to providing significant amounts of renewable power, the dam controls the flow of the St. Lawrence River and allows passage for the navigation of large vessels.  In the 1970s during the oil embargo and protracted energy crisis, NYPA was the first power provider to implement an aggressive energy efficiency program – HELP, for “High Efficiency Lighting Program” in the early 70s right after the oil embargo. And we continue to support innovation. For example, we contribute to quite a few R&D projects with the Electric Power Research Institute.  And come to think of it … New York is where Thomas Edison built the first power plant in New York City along Pearl Street, and Nikola Tesla invented long distance transmission of electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo right here in the great State of New York. We have always been a first mover in the utility sector when it comes to innovation and technology.

 

Speaker 1: It sounds like “innovation” is in the NYPA’s DNA.  And now you have a new digital monitoring and diagnostic center – consistent with the legacy of an institution that embraces change.

 

Speaker 2: Yes, to us it’s going back to our roots. Part of NYPA’s strategic vision involves becoming the “next-generation” utility. We are going digital. We have declared that the New York Power Authority will be the first end-to-end digital utility, and we are well on our way.

 

Integrated Smart Operations Center (iSOC) opening. Photo courtesy of New York Power Authority.

 

Speaker 1:  Which naturally leads to my next question … there are so many changes taking place throughout energy –  clean-tech, EVs, natural gas, PPAs, the digital oilfield, biofuels – I can go on and on and on.  But what would you say are the three biggest changes happening at the NYPA?

 

Speaker 2: To us, digital technologies allow us to accomplish three important goals: First, they help us place the customer at the center of this transformation because now it is easier to measure our success with our customers. Going digital also allows us to be even more cost efficient.  In New York, we are the best deal in terms of supplying clean electricity to our customers – we want to maintain that cost leadership, and this digital transformation is helping us do that. And third, digitization also allows us to create and test new business models so that we can truly innovate.

 

Speaker 1: I can understand why you are making this transition.  But with it comes inherent and unavoidable challenges.  For instance, if you honor the customer and you are committed to cost leadership, then the combination of these two objectives quite naturally creates new challenges, such as growing interest in small-scale, virtual-, micro-, and community-grids. Indeed, we are beginning to see more and more customers prefer distributed forms of energy who are leaving the grid.  How do you accommodate changes that challenge the “authority” of the NYPA?

 

Speaker 2: We intend to embrace these changes, too.  We call it “our customer-solutions business line,” which includes anything from the edge of the grid to energy efficiency to demand response to customer-side renewables – and of course, energy storage. All of these are examples of customer solutions that we support. We have committed about $250 to $300 million per year to support development of customer-solutions business – we are one of the largest supporters of customer-focused innovation.  For instance, we issued an RFP requesting one million MWh of renewable energy, or about 400 MW capacity equivalent for our customers, and plan to soon announce selected developers and customers. We are looking at developing new transmission systems that can bring renewable energy to remote areas and other load-centers throughout New York State. We’re examining the potential of energy storage on different parts of the grid – we think there is a place for storage within the transmission system, throughout the distribution system, and behind-the-meter, too. We are active in electric vehicle infrastructure and electric vehicle technology. For instance, NYPA just announced a $250 million commitment to aggressively accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles throughout New York State with new public and private partnerships.  Fast charging will be expanded along key corridors and in urban hubs and airports – moving the state closer to its goal of supporting 10,000 charging stations by the end of 2021. NYPA will also play a key role in bringing High-speed charging to service areas and commuter lots along the New York State Thruway from New York City and Buffalo. We are working toward a future where there is no range anxiety for anyone driving an electric car in New York State.

 

Spanning the U.S.-Canadian border at Massena, N.Y., is an international hydroelectric facility that produces some of the cleanest, lowest cost electricity in North America. The U.S. portion of the facility is the St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project. On the Canadian side is the Robert H. Saunders Generating Station. Photos courtesy of New York Power Authority. (Top: STL 1958. Bottom: STL Completed)

 

Speaker 1: Our headquarters for the American Energy Society is in Palo Alto, and the changes you describe sounds so familiar – it sounds like you are, for lack of a better term, a “Silicon Valley for utilities and the power sector.”  But technological innovation has its own inherent challenges.  For instance, you can adopt sophisticated technology, but what about the work-force? How do you make sure your new innovations don’t leave people behind?

 

Speaker 2: As a public utility, the way we work with people – our customers or staff – is going to be a little different than what you might see in Silicon Valley.  We are owned by the State of New York, so our efforts are guided by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s innovative state energy policies, which are altering how individuals, businesses and communities access energy throughout the state while also leading when it comes to climate change. At the same time, one of our main charges is to provide economic development for New York by providing low-cost power and energy efficiency services. When we innovate our energy infrastructure, we do it in order to provide value for our customers – it is our mission: “whatever we do has to benefit the people and the State of New York.”  So how does that mission inform our digital strategy?  I will answer that question with an example.  For instance, we create digital replicas – we call them digital twins – of our power plants, substations and transmission systems, and also our customer’s energy systems. Now what is a digital twin you may ask?  First, we apply advance data analytics – machine language and artificial intelligence – to optimize the performance of an asset. Then, we create its digital replica – its twin – which mimics physical or operational performance of the original asset. Finally, once we create the digital twin, we can easily duplicate and distribute the ideal asset anywhere. And the way we innovate is also very different from what you see in Silicon Valley, too.  For instance, your iPhone and its IOS is heavily guarded and protected by Apple.  But as a public utility, we basically own our own digital platform and digital information, which allows us to invite trusted third-party partners – other utilities, grid operators, PhD students, technology companies, research institutions – and let them all come to the NYPA use our platform and our data and then go innovate and develop new products and services that will be of value to all of our customers.  We have created a powerful innovation ecosystem here at NYPA, at least within the realm of the energy/utility industry.  By opening up our platform and data for further innovation, we hope that companies that innovate with us, or co-innovate with us, will set-up shop here in New York, hire people here in New York, and invest capital in New York. That kind of innovation ecosystem is a key component of our larger strategy and mission here at the Power Authority.  But you also spoke of challenges, and yes, you are right.  One of the biggest challenges for us is recruiting talent. Everywhere you go there is always a battle for talent.  But we think we are doing very interesting things – like our new Integrated Smart Operations Center (iSOC) – that will help attract talented prospective employees who want to work here at the Power Authority, especially when they know our story and know the Governor’s innovative energy strategies for New York.

 

Speaker 1: It sounds to me that you have come up with innovative solutions to develop your workforce – by creating partnerships and collaborative relationships? Teams and trusted third parties?  You have found other ways to bring in talent and capitalize on talent?

 

Speaker 2: Absolutely. In addition to providing new skill instruction for our internal talent, the best for us to get things done and to further innovate is through partnerships and strategic alliance – that is a model that we have embraced here in New York and at NYPA.

 

Speaker 1: Clearly, NYPA is driven by its mission, what’s best for New York. And through workforce development and your strategic approach to innovation – such as the “digital twin” strategy – you are clearly meeting your objectives.  You are guided by the “what’s best for New York” mission. And yet, the NYPA isn’t solely New York-centered.  It isn’t entirely focused on itself.  At its most basic level, some of the lessons you have learned could serve as best practices for other utilities?

 

Speaker 2: You are absolutely correct. Think of us [NYPA] as the first-mover utility that tries things first – new ideas and new technologies – and then shares our lessons learned through partnerships, collaboration, and strategic alliances. And when we find solutions or products and services that are of value to customers, we share that information – with other utilities in New York or with the Public Service Commission – so they can be more confident in making their own investments in new innovation. This is an important role for us … to be the first mover, to be the catalyst, to be the one to try things out first. In the spirit of innovation and continuous improvement we are not afraid to “fail fast and iterate.”  We will find the right solutions quickly and then we will make sure to share what we have learned – this is how we make a difference here in New York.

 

NYPA’s commitment to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles throughout New York State with new public and private partnerships, including fast charging stations that will be expanded along key corridors and in urban hubs and airports.  Photo courtesy of New York Power Authority.

 

Speaker 1: And not just in New York.  The hurricane in Puerto Rico devastated the island. I read that the NYPA played an important role in helping Puerto Rico rebuild and that New York, under Governor Cuomo’s direction, by mobilized teams of SUNY and CUNY students, skilled workers from the construction and building trades through the first-responder disaster relief organizations like All Hands & Hearts, to further rebuild and restore Puerto Rico.

 

Speaker 2: We try to be a first-mover utility, and that meant being a first-responder for Puerto Rico, too.  For instance, Governor Cuomo was the first to call the PR Governor, Governor Rossello, before and right after Hurricane Irma, and he was the first governor who called before and right after Hurricane Maria hit in September. And more importantly, he was the first governor to visit Puerto Rico right after the hurricane – that team included myself and 20 or so NYPA engineers who flew to Puerto Rico the day after Maria hit land.  Our NYPA engineers – I call them our MacGyvers – worked hand-in-hand with the PREPA utility and with FEMA to begin inspection of the power grid and all of the island’s 350 sub-stations, including the sub-islands Vieques and Culebra.  Our team wound up expanding and stayed longer, about 450 utility line men, 350 bucket trucks, dozens of engineers … for about 10 weeks.  It was inspiring to see trucks with license plates from New York City and brand-stickers for ConEd, National Grid, Avangrid, PSEG Long Island, Orange & Rockland Counties, and Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. on the ground in Puerto Rico….  No other state responded as extensively as New York because, as our Governor likes to say, “Puerto Rico is family to us.  When somebody in your family needs help you don’t need to ask … you just show up and get to work.”  And that is what we did … we stayed until we got the power back on line for all of Puerto Rico.  We were with them every step of the way.

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Gil Quiniones is a mechanical engineer and current president and CEO of the New York Power Authority (NYPA).

Judging from Mr. Quiniones’s accomplishments, he is clearly extremely knowledgeable at what he does, is decisive and creative with his solutions, and runs the Power Authority for the State of New York with integrity. Indeed, NYPA provides some of the lowest-cost electricity in the nation, operates 16 generating facilities and more than 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines, uses no state tax dollars and incurs no state debt, finances its projects principally through the sale of bonds that it repays using revenues from operations.

The scope and scale of operations at NYPA is enormous, including:

  • three large hydroelectric complexes: the 2,441,000-kilowatt (kW) Niagara Power Project; the 800,000-kW St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project; and the 1,160,000-kW Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project in the Catskill Mountains – all of which produce about 70% of NYPA’s power
  • four small hydro facilities in Albany, Saratoga, Oneida, and Schenectady (net capability 10,000 kW)
  • two natural gas-fueled power plants, one on Long Island and one in Queens;
  • seven small natural gas plants (six in New York City and one on Long Island)
  • transmission lines that stretch more than 1,000 miles from the Canada–US border and crisscross New York State, much of which follows an underwater path.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Please check out natural disaster relief organizations such as All Hands & Hearts whose mission it is to efficiently and effectively addresses the immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters such as the rebuilding and restoration of Puerto Rico.

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