Tuesday, April 19, 2022

An Enduring Mission

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As the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) marks its 50th anniversary, President and CEO Arshad Mansoor outlines a future vision that builds on past successes

The timing couldn’t have been much worse. During rush hour on November 9, 1965, millions of New York commuters were on their way home from work and school when a massive power outage struck.

For a time, 850,000 New Yorkers were trapped in subway cars while countless others were stuck in buildings and elevators. “One moment, New York was glittering Gotham,” a newsreel from the time proclaimed. “The next moment, only flickering candles, automobile headlights, and bobbing flashlights were probing a stygian darkness.”

It wasn’t only New Yorkers who found themselves suddenly flung into darkness. The transmission line near Ontario, Canada, that caused the cascading outage ultimately left 30 million people in eight Northeastern states and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario without power. Some people lacked power for as long as 13 hours.

Out of Crisis, a Search for Answers

In many ways, the blackout was a revelation to the general public and policymakers about the fundamental importance of the electric power grid to the daily functioning of society. It was also a key step in the creation of EPRI 50 years ago.

In the years following what became known as the Great Northeast Blackout, more pointed questions about the resilience and importance of the grid were raised due to the 1967 war in the Middle East and the energy crisis that dominated the early 1970s. Eventually, it became clear that a collaborative, science-based research organization was needed to help inform utility decisions about technologies, planning, system maintenance, and the lengthy, evolving menu of topics energy companies must understand to serve society reliably.

Chauncey Starr

EPRI is Born

The U.S. Congress acknowledged the need for research and development (R&D) to benefit both the electric power industry and the society it served when it proposed a new federal agency in 1971. In response, public and private utilities came together to recommend a private alternative, which ultimately resulted in the creation of EPRI in April of 1972.

Initially led by Chauncey Starr, a Manhattan Project veteran and the originator of the academic field of risk analysis (among many other accomplishments), EPRI began its research in earnest in 1973 when it took over R&D projects that had been managed by the Electric Research Council and the Edison Electric Institute.

Before EPRI was formed, Starr explained the role he envisioned for the new organization—a role that still sounds familiar today. “I had an almost idealistic objective,” Starr recalled when he was interviewed as part of a celebration on his 90th birthday. “Science and technology really ought to have a major social service. I am a committed believer that science and technology can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life of people.”

Starr took on the leadership of EPRI under one condition: that EPRI’s research would be independent and serve society at large. In that regard, little has changed during the past five decades.

A Vision of EPRI’s Future

EPRI President and CEO Arshad Mansoor reflected on what has changed (and what hasn’t) about how the organization functions and how EPRI is uniquely positioned to lead the transition to a clean energy future.

Having worked at EPRI for nearly 16 years, Mansoor has experienced the many changes, challenges, and opportunities the energy industry is currently navigating. For example, in 2006, when Mansoor started working at EPRI, just over 9 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) were installed worldwide. In 2020, 133 gigawatts of solar were installed due to substantial cost reductions, increased manufacturing scale, and policy support. Data about wind generation, energy storage, electric vehicles, and other distributed energy resources (DER) tell a similar growth story.

Significant increases in zero-carbon variable generation resources—including DER—represent a paradigm shift from how utilities traditionally generate, transmit, and distribute electricity. At the same time, society is relying on electricity to play a crucial role in achieving global decarbonization goals announced by corporations and governments around the world.

The energy transition underway aligns with EPRI’s core mission to be a research organization that collaborates with key stakeholders to conduct effective R&D programs for the benefit of society.

Recent examples include EPRI joining with the Gas Technology Institute in 2020 to launch the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI) to advance low-carbon electricity generation technologies and chemical energy carriers, as well as EPRI’s Integrated Grid initiative that explored pathways to maximize the benefits of both existing grid assets and newer DER—work that included research and modeling and dozens of pilot projects.

A Need for Increased Agility and Collaboration

While EPRI’s research priorities evolve, the organization remains committed to approaching work the same way it has since its founding. “EPRI was created with a unique mission, the mission of using science, being the voice of science to ensure the safe, affordable, and reliable delivery of electricity to meet the needs of society,” Mansoor said. “That vision has blossomed into an organization that works with 450 energy companies across 45 countries, that works with universities worldwide, national labs, and is making a difference in the way society uses, produces, and distributes energy.”

But Mansoor also understands that EPRI needs to continue to evolve. “EPRI, just like any other organization, any other business, will need to be agile,” he said. “In particular, that means being agile in understanding how markets, EPRI members, and societal expectations are evolving.”

He noted that being attuned to and fully grasping all of those changes will impact the science-based research necessary to navigate a quickly evolving industry.

A big part of EPRI’s future opportunities will involve working with a broader set of stakeholders. “The energy companies are not the only ones who are investing in clean energy today,” Mansoor said. “Globally, governments are investing. States are investing. Countless entities now have clean energy as their key focus. We are now engaging with companies who will electrify their fleets like the U.S. Post Office and many other companies.”

While each partnership and collaboration will be different, they will share the same fundamental goal. “We are partnering with energy companies so that industries and the transportation sector and others can have access to clean resources for their energy transition,” Mansoor said. “Our future will be built on our foundation. Fifty years ago, what was true was that there needed to be a voice of science and technology that collaborates not just with energy companies but also with researchers worldwide. That is still true today. And that will remain true 50 years from now.”

During the coming months, EPRI Journal will publish stories commemorating some of the major milestones and accomplishments EPRI has achieved in its half-century of existence.