I recently retired from Menard Electric Cooperative after serving 16 years as General Manager, and wrapped up a 47-year career as a Professional Engineer and Manager for four different organizations. Illinois Country Living Magazine’s editorial staff asked me to write this article about “how things have changed over my career” because they know I must have experienced a lot, since I am so darn old.
After beginning at Menard Electric in early 1999, I saw the cooperative embrace new technology and take advantage of the latest business practices to provide great service to its members. In this article, I will focus my review on the technological advancements that have had the greatest impact on our industry.
We all can easily appreciate how technology has resulted in tremendous advancements in computers, electronics, and communications that impact our work and daily lives. Many of us now take for granted the ability to use our smart phone to be able to talk with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world, and not only talk but see them or exchange a video of an event that has just occurred. Each day it seems new medical procedures are announced that result in more people having the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives. There are almost an unlimited number of examples of how technology has had amazing impacts on many things around us.
The electric utility industry has also seen the positive results of technology advancements, such as smart meters that can be read remotely, directional boring machines that precisely install underground cables, GPS mapping and engineering design software programs, just to name a few. Over the last few years, new advances in alternatives for electric generation, like wind turbines and solar panels are other options to meet the electric needs of our communities.
An area not to be overlooked is how much improvement has been made in reducing the environmental impact from coal-fired generation. It is really quite impressive how much of the fleet of “dirty coal-fired power plants” has been converted to “clean coal-fired power plants” over the last 30 years, thanks to EPA regulations and the investment of many billions of dollars by electric consumers to purchase low sulfur coal, and construct electrostatic precipitators, higher efficiency boilers, low NOx burners, SO2 scrubbers, and selective catalytic reduction and mercury control equipment. The combined effect of putting in place all of this technology is that over 90 percent of the pollutants that used to be found in power plant emissions have been eliminated.
Similar results have also been achieved in water discharged from power plants that today meet high standards for safety. I can recall back in the ’70s and ’80s that public concern was raised to meet the environmental challenges of “acid rain” and massive fish kills in major rivers. Today those issues are pretty much a distant memory as our society has seen real improvements in our ability to treat waste water discharges and industrial or utility air emissions, thanks to the commitment to use the best technology available.
To demonstrate this improvement over time, I can remember back in the 70s when I would drive up to Chicago, and just as the skyline of the city would come into view, a brown haze appeared that hung over the city and my eyes would get irritated as I continued the trip downtown. Today, when I make the same trip on I-55, the city skyline is clear and blue. It is a real example of just how much improvement we have been able to achieve using technology to correct major environmental problems.
The future will surely have more environmental issues to solve, but I would argue that most of the big environmental problems have been addressed and today our society spends bigger and bigger piles of money to solve smaller and smaller environmental issues.
As an engineer, I have watched how technology has been a major driver on the improvements we have all experienced in our lives over the last few decades. Over these same years, I have also seen the employees become better trained at using the new tools and technology available to them. In the end, it still takes good people, who are willing to work hard, using the best technology at hand, to produce the best results for members as they strive to meet their service expectations. Maybe things really have not changed all that much in the past 47 years – great employees are still the number one reason electric cooperatives can produce great results for their members.