OSU alums help power PGE innovation

From left, Ryin Khandoker, Janet Kahl, Bill Nicholson and Lee Cramer are all innovators and leaders with Portland General Electric, as well as graduates of Oregon State University. Date: May 24, 2010 (photo: Jan Sonnenmair)

When many Oregonians reach to flip on their light switch, they don’t really think twice about why the bulb lights up. They only notice when it doesn’t.

That’s what the staff of Portland General Electric (PGE) counts on, service so smooth and consistent that customers have confidence that when they flip that switch, the world will illuminate. And nearly 150 of those staff members are Oregon State University alums.

Those employees are dedicated to a variety of projects that make the world a better, as well as a brighter, place. From solar energy to wind power, electric car charging stations to helping fish navigate dammed rivers, there are a variety of projects that OSU alums are working on every day that are improving the community and the environment.

Through its “Orange Spotlight” program, Oregon State University is recognizing PGE as an exemplary business demonstrating a dedication to community service, sustainability and innovation. Part of the “Powered by Orange” campaign, the Orange Spotlight features a different business each month.

Jim Piro is president and CEO of PGE. He’s also a 1974 graduate of Oregon State, where he majored in civil engineering. Piro, a Portland native, chose OSU because of its intensive and competitive engineering program, and after graduation, took a job with Pacific Gas and Electric in California, before coming back to the Northwest in 1980 to work in PGE’s Generation Engineering department before eventually going into PGE financial and management positions.

In the past two decades, PGE has gone through many changes. They’ve added more natural gas plants, upgraded power plants to make them more efficient, have decommissioned the Trojan nuclear plant, and are currently working to add more renewable energy resources, including wind and solar power generation.

“One of the challenges we’re facing as an industry is how do we integrate a variable resource like wind into the power grid and provide our customers with reliable power,” Piro said.

PGE currently has 817,000 customers in the Portland metro area and Salem, which includes 40 percent residential, 40 percent commercial and 20 percent industrial customers.

Jim Piro, president and CEO of PGE, is a graduate of Oregon State University. Piro said many PGE employees will reach retirement age in the next decade, and OSU graduates may help fill those positions. Date: May 24, 2010 (photo: Jan Sonnenmair)

While renewable energy only makes up a portion of the energy that PGE provides, the company is continuously exploring new ways to support those efforts, and part of it is because of the increasing demand of Northwest customers.

“We have more renewable power customers than any other utility in the nation,” Piro said. “Customers are willing to pay a little more for renewable power. It shows their commitment to renewable resources. The population in Oregon has always had a real emphasis on energy efficiency.”

Piro is so dedicated to his OSU ties, and to the quality of employees that OSU has provided to the company, he has established a scholarship fund for the OSU College of Engineering. Additionally, the PGE Foundation offers five scholarships focused on engineering. Training tomorrow’s engineers is crucial, especially given PGE’s aging workforce.

“The average age of our employees is 46. We’re going to see 25 percent of our workforce retire in the next 10 years,” he said. In addition to engineers, PGE will need accountants, human resource personnel, legal staff and other positions filled as well, and many of those will come from OSU.

Bill Nicholson is vice president of distribution at PGE, and a 1980 graduate of Oregon State’s College of Engineering.

“I chose Oregon State because it was the best engineering school in the Northwest,” he said. He was also accepted to Stanford but turned them down in order to attend OSU. He started working for PGE as soon as he graduated, and is helping lead the company’s electric vehicle infrastructure among other projects.

PGE is a leader in developing a network of electric car charging stations, and even has one in front of its headquarters in downtown Portland.  Oregon and PGE are currently participating in a federal stimulus-funded project to install more than 2,000 charging stations in the Willamette Valley, and PGE will be a part of that project.

In another electric car-related project, Nicholson said PGE is looking at how to reuse electric vehicle batteries after they lose some of their charge, and turn the batteries into battery backup systems to give them a second life.

Ryin Khandoker graduated in 2005 from OSU with a degree in electrical engineering. He said that OSU’s good football team played a role in his decision to attend the university, and the high-quality engineering program was the clincher. Khandoker now works with some of PGE’s biggest industrial customers to make sure that they have reliable and consistent power systems.

He said in addition to gaining engineering skills at OSU, he also learned how to communicate effectively, an important component of his job, since he often needs to explain complex information to customers in a language that a non-engineer can comprehend.

Khandoker benefited from his time at OSU by participating in MECOP (Multiple Engineering Cooperative Program), which pairs college students with industry leaders for high level internships. PGE participates in the program, as well as many other industry leaders. Khandoker can now talk to OSU students about the experience, as well as about his successful career at PGE.

“The student comes out more motivated because they see the material they’re learning in class can be applied to real-world problems.” Khandoker said.

Janet Kahl is a 1986 graduate of OSU, and is the mechanical engineering manager in power supply at PGE. She is a second-generation OSU alum.

“The most important thing I learned was how to learn,” she said. “Here in power supply engineering the technology is changing every year, so it’s important for us to be able to learn new technology and keep up with the industry.”

Kahl said PGE generates four percent of its renewable power from the Biglow Canyon wind farm in Sherman County. Another 76 turbines will come online this year, and PGE will have the capacity to generate 450 megawatts of wind power.

Lee Cramer, who graduated in 2006, applies the problem-solving skills he learned at OSU to his job as a mechanical engineer.

“You never have a problem that’s straight out of a textbook,” he said. “It’s more about interacting with other people and working together to come up with a solution.”

Cramer’s job is atypical in that he’s actually using engineering skills to help save fish. He was part of a unique fish restoration project at PGE’s Pelton Round Butte Project on the lower Deschutes River. The first-of-its-kind fish bypass and intake structure on Lake Billy Chinook returns temperatures in the lower Deschutes River to historic patterns and restores downstream passage of Chinook, steelhead and sockeye smolts.

The structure is the only known floating surface fish collection facility coupled with power generation in the world. It was designed to reflect the latest scientific data about fish migration patterns, especially biologists’ greater understanding of the critical role river currents play in helping fish smolts to make their downstream journey to the ocean.

“Its important to try and mitigate our impact as much as possible,” he said. “Hydropower is a very low impact means of generating electricity, and that helps us reduce that footprint even more.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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