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From rising temperatures to environmental degradation and water insecurity, the impacts of climate change are being felt increasingly across the world.
Addressing the growing climate crisis is a key concern for businesses and governments alike, with many companies committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions.
Yet, for these goals to be achieved, clean energy output needs to be increased to meet the needs of consumers. Energy Northwest, a public power joint operating agency for the state of Washington, is at the forefront of the clean energy transition.
“We are getting ready to build another solar station.”
“We are a 100 percent carbon-free generator of electricity, as we own and operate hydroelectric plants, solar plants, battery storage and wind plants,” explains Robert Schuetz, CEO of Energy Northwest. “Our biggest asset is Columbia Generating Station, which is a nuclear power plant.”
Energy Northwest’s members, which are a collection of public and municipal power utility districts in Washington, are bound by state law to provide carbon-neutral electricity generation by 2030.
However, there’s currently an insufficient amount of clean energy available in the state to meet these goals. So, Schuetz and his team are focusing on providing more carbon-free energy to help member utilities meet their targets.
“We look at a whole number of different things,” Schuetz says. “We are getting ready to build another solar station, and we’re looking to extend the license and upgrade the capacity of our wind plant.”
Nuclear power is also at the forefront of Energy Northwest’s vision. As well as extending the license and increasing the power output of their existing nuclear assets, Schuetz wants to build a new nuclear plant in Washington to ramp up the production of clean energy.
A great deal of work is being done by Energy Northwest to develop new assets that can help boost energy output levels. But Schuetz sees operational excellence as the key goal to success.
Along with the wider nuclear industry, Energy Northwest funds the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which visit utilities every two years to evaluate their operational performance.
This has proven to be an effective way to track the performance of Energy Northwest, as well as identify areas of success and where improvements can be made.
“In our history, we’ve received the top rating only three times, but the last two evaluations found the highest rating possible. There is a definite focus on operational excellence, and it’s very hard to maintain because the excellence level is high,” Schuetz says.
“The line that you’re trying to achieve is always going up. Once you achieve the top level, if you just maintain it, you end up declining.”
“Once you achieve the top level, if you just maintain it, you end up declining.”
Schuetz and his team have set out the areas of highest priority to improve their operational record. As can be expected in a plant that is around 40 years old, maintaining high equipment reliability is no easy task, especially as vital tools become older and more expensive to maintain.
One priority is to set up an appropriate lifecycle management program to make sure that everything that needs to get replaced, upgraded or repaired is done in time. This helps to prevent issues from arising that limit Energy Northwest’s ability to generate electricity.
Furthermore, a focus on people management that goes beyond just workforce planning is essential in this industry, where mistakes that compromise safety are simply unacceptable.
“We aim to create an environment where all staff can work together to achieve the things that we need through continuous improvement,” Schuetz says. “We expect everybody, every day, to think about how they could make something better, to prevent silos and unlock a true team spirit focused on excellence across the agency.”
People are at the core of everything Energy Northwest achieves. For Schuetz, fostering a workplace where employees feel equipped to come to work each day and improve themselves is critical.
“We spend a lot of time focused on personal improvement, creating new opportunities or erasing some vulnerability that currently exists. We actually have an excellence model that describes great performance as a result of two things – great behaviors and great results.”
These values sit at the heart of everything Energy Northwest hopes to accomplish and the company works hard to illustrate this importance to employees.
“We drill down these behaviors to the individual workers. At the beginning of each day, every worker sits down in a group with their supervisors and they review their individual performance for the previous day against those elements,” he explains.
Any time staff or the organization falls short are highlighted to be addressed and resolved the next day. And it’s not just problems that are identified, with exceptional conduct also being recognized and rewarded.
“We’re going to help you measure performance, we’re going to tell you how to be successful and we’re going to coach you when necessary. And hopefully we’ll reward you when you demonstrate excellence.”
This model has now been improving operational performance at the company for over a decade. The buy-in from employees and the enduring nature of the scheme is a testament to its success.
“In my experience, these types of programs don’t survive this length of time,” Schuetz says. “Every couple of years, you’re always having new focus areas, but this core operating model has become part of our culture now and that’s why it doesn’t change.”
Rather than working in isolation and viewing other utility companies purely as rivals, Schuetz recognizes the value of collaboration. He has developed an elaborate system for coordinating supply chains between many other utility firms.
The benefits of this collaborative approach are clear. Schuetz gives the example of a motor unexpectedly burning up and Energy Northwest not having a replacement in its warehouse.
But thanks to a computer system that connects all utilities together, Schuetz and his team can look into other warehouses and, if necessary, negotiate the purchase of the vital part and install it quickly.
Strong relationships with suppliers, too, are essential to the ongoing success and excellence of Energy Northwest. Ageing plant parts is an especially problematic challenge for Schuetz, with many in imminent need of replacement. But there are no vendors that can provide these critical supplies.
“We’ve got one system now that uses a lot of circuit cards – nobody makes these cards and nobody makes the components that are on the circuit cards,” he says.
But despite frustrations, Schuetz doesn’t forget the value of cordial relationships.
“We expect everybody, every day, to think about how they could make something better.”
“Some of the most valuable benefits from suppliers aren’t necessarily paid for, such as the technical expertise we can get,” he adds.
When a good relationship has been built with a supplier, rather than simply selling the company a product, they will offer different parts or solutions that may be a better fit for the exact problem that needs to be solved.
In an industry where safety is paramount, Energy Northwest needs partners that go above and beyond to ensure safety challenges are addressed before they cause a problem.
Paragon Energy Solutions, a supplier of safety-related products and components, and UniTech Services Group, a nuclear waste disposal service and radiological laundering provider, are two shining examples.
In order to meet the demands for clean energy, Energy Northwest is working with partners from across the energy ecosystem and embracing a collaborative approach, where all firms are aiming toward the same goal – a more sustainable world.
After partnering with IBM’s AI solution, Watson, around five years ago, Energy Northwest has been leading the energy industry in adopting AI.
By applying AI to the formal corrective action program, Energy Northwest has been able to reduce the huge staffing burden, as AI can screen and track any maintenance issues.
“It’s done very well, but now we’re now taking it to the next level. It’s going to do the maintenance planning for us automatically as well,” adds Schuetz.