The cover photo of his Facebook page is the Coney Island Cyclone. And that alone might suggest that Tommy Roberts is capable of riding the ups and downs of the utility industry.
Hoosier Energy’s Engineering Services Manager is not only a roller coaster aficionado, but he’s helping guide the integration of technology into Hoosier’s transmission services.
Roberts, who has been with the company for over 15 years now, recently sat down to talk about both of those things with GridLines.
Q: Technology is always advancing and changing, how do you oversee what Hoosier uses?
One of our tasks is to stay abreast of emerging technology, specifically when it comes to transmission and substation technologies. The way we do that is we leverage our membership and partnership with institutions that do a lot of that research and can help be a force multiplier since we have a limited number of resources and can’t be at everything. Those organizations help us look at, prioritize and summarize those emerging technologies. It’s usually EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) and NATF (North American Transmission Forum).
Essentially, we use those organizations and go to conferences or attend webinars and engage in interest groups to have the opportunity to learn and get exposure to new technologies in different spheres, whether that is transmission line, grid-enhancing technologies, substation technologies, new operational technology or drones, which are a big topic of conversation.
Q: How does Hoosier Energy decide what technologies suit our interests?
Our biggest bang for the buck is letting EPRI or NATF try out different technologies and give us a summary of those learnings. Everything we do from a tech standpoint is limited. We try to be conservative in what we’re using and putting out there. It takes a lot to get onto our plate in engineering services.
Reliability is the most important thing and we’re focused on that, so we don’t have time to devote to testing new technologies. We need others to test them out and give us a report and we can start to learn about it. It needs to be at a certain level of development before it can be used at Hoosier.
Q: What are some of the most recent things from a tech standpoint?
I think a lot of the recent focus has been the collection and management of data and sharing information between systems and what does that look like and how integrated are we? Hoosier Energy continues to make strides to take our enterprise asset management system and tie it into GIS (Geographic Information System) with a lot of the current focus on data integrations and how we can do better job with data quality and data management to better leverage future technologies.
When you look at the technologies at the forefront, there are things like augmented reality. For example, you can take a cellphone camera out and it will project the image of your design on the screen while you’re looking at something in the field. So you can have transmission lines that you digitally created and bring it out to the field and show on your phone what something looks like, what are the clearances for trees, etc. It’s all about bringing that digital world into the real world.
We’re focused on tightening up those integrations and the data so we can get to that future world where that digital model or digital twin exists. Then we can start to leverage those future technologies.
Q: You mentioned the topic of drones. Where does the use of drones on the transmission front stand?
Some Hoosier Energy linemen are now certified drone operators, so it’s up to them to decide when it’s appropriate to bring a drone out for inspections to help with things that are beyond line of sight at the ground level, like the tops of poles.
The use of those drones is only going to increase. There’s a future out there where drones become more AI-oriented where it’s not about having a pilot, it’s about the ability to have a docked drone at a substation. If something happens in the middle of the night, you can fly that thing remotely from the operations center in Owen County or autonomously it will inspect the substation before anyone is on scene, making it the first responder.
The drone’s out there surveying what’s happened and feeding information to system control and our responders, so they don’t walk into an unknown situation. When we get to that point, that will be a huge advantage from a reliability and system restoration and safety standpoint.
Q: There’s always some concern tech is going to replace people. That’s not the goal, is it?
In our business especially, I think it’s going to make jobs safer with drones able to fly a line and help identify an outage in the middle of a snowstorm or in the middle of the night. That’s real-time feedback in dangerous conditions when we might normally have linemen going up and down the line to see what’s wrong. There’s not a life on the line with the drone, and then the information will tell the linemen to go exactly where they’re needed. It could potentially make the situation so much safer for folks in the field.
There’s never going to be a substitute for a lineman. All the drones can really do is provide an extra visual aid. In what we do, it will be a really interesting future as this technology gets on its feet and the FAA approves beyond line-of-sight drones.
Q: What’s on the horizon?
There’s a lot of conversation about what’s called GETs, Grid Enhancing Technologies. It continues to be something we monitor, but for Hoosier, the big thing with that is dynamic line ratings, which means depending on the conditions, the amount of energy you can transfer across a power line could be very different.
You’re worried about the temperature of your conductor, so if it’s very hot outside with lots of sun, potentially you move less power than if it’s super cold and windy and keeping those conductors cool. Dynamic Line Ratings use technology, weather and condition monitoring for a system that looks at conductors and makes assessments from a heat capacity standpoint. The intent is to say whether we can put more power on this line up to a certain point. Dynamic Line Ratings are something that gets a lot of attention.
There’s the use of ambient adjusted ratings, which we have to get done with MISO in 2025, so that’s seen as a precursor to Dynamic Line Ratings. Ambient means we’re going to look at the temperature and adjust to what the outside temperature is, but a true dynamic rating is what they’re working toward. There are pilot programs out there, which we continue to monitor, but that is one of the GETs that could come to Hoosier depending on FERC mandates and what they want to see.
Q: Did you ever imagine keeping up with all of these technologies when you were studying engineering?
I graduated as a mechanical engineer from Rose-Hulman and spent the first 11 or 12 years at Hoosier Energy working in generation asset management, doing large capital projects and engineering studies on the generation side, then found my way into transmission asset management and now as manager of engineering services.
Learning about new technology has always been something that excites me and keeps me going. It makes every day new as you learn about some other aspect of emerging technology or the way something else works. Having a good breadth of so many engineering disciplines within our group – electrical engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, making use of communications – we can talk about a lot of different technologies that make it exciting.
Q: What sparked your interest in engineering when you were younger?
I’ve always been a roller coaster aficionado or enthusiast, and my favorite subject in high school was physics, so when you put those things together you find out engineering is where you want to be.
Turns out there aren’t a lot of jobs designing roller coasters. There’s a lot of competition for that, and it’s a pretty small market, but a lot of the things I liked about that hobby and how things are so different from park to park with each having little differences was kind of the same in generation if you look at it from a macro level. Every power plant has its own unique mix of technologies combined with geographic idiosyncrasies that play into it – how do they get water, how do they get their fuel into the station, what type of fuel is it, how does that impact technology, pollution controls, what type of boiler?
One thing on the coal side was how unique each plant was, and that appealed to me that each plant was its own problem that required a unique solution. At Hoosier, Ratts and Merom were just completely different. You can’t take one answer and solve problems at both places. They were unique, and you had to know the difference. And comparing those plants to other plants in Indiana or across the U.S., you had to understand other differences.
Q: Where are you from and what theme parks sparked the interest in roller coasters?
I’m just from around. I spent a good chunk of time in the suburbs of Chicago and then went to high school in Connecticut. I wanted to come back to the Midwest and ended up at Rose-Hulman for engineering school and have been in Indiana since then.
Cedar Point has always been my favorite, but I also like Islands of Adventure, Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, Six Flags Great America in Chicago, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and Six Flags New England.
I’ve been to just about every park in the U.S. minus Utah, which is the only state I haven’t been to an amusement park. Any big park I’ve been to. I’m at over 440 rollercoasters ridden and have done a few amusement parks in Europe – France and the UK.
I don’t travel like that now. When you have kids, it’s hard to do.
Q: What are your favorite roller coasters?
Millenium Force at Cedar Point is definitely my favorite. Super Man at Six Flags New England is a favorite.
I like a good wooden rollercoaster, so I love The Voyage at Holiday World. That’s one of the few that by the end, I’m ready for it to be done.