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October 2009
Taking Control of the Power Grid
By Marcia Merrill

     You enter a room, flip on the lights and turn on your TV. Instantly you are bathed in light, with your TV blaring at you. You take it all for granted … unless nothing happens.

Receiving the power we need requires everything to work flawlessly, with everyone doing the right things at the right time. Perhaps that’s why SOS Intl, a provider of training and compliance consulting, has followed that formula to success in the energy industry.

 

A Powerful Idea

     The power industry is, not surprisingly, heavily regulated on state and federal levels by the government. Reliability standards are issued and enforced by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), an organization that ensures the reliability of the bulk power system in North America.

     NERC introduced certification testing for system operators in 1998. All of those who took the test that year were due to recertify in 2003. This meant that a large group of system operators would have to retake and pass the test again in 2003. While some of the larger utilities had training departments, most didn’t and would need help.

     No one was more aware of this potential risk than Matt Sadinsky and Rocky Sease. At the time, they were both working at Grid South, a regional transmission organization, as directors of human resources and system operations, respectively. However, Grid South was closing its doors, so Sadinsky and Sease viewed it as an opportunity to employ their own talents.

     With the new NERC standards as impetus, Sease developed a plan to offer NERC preparedness training to electric utilities, offering classroom training and consulting. He quickly picked up training clients in the U.S., as well as consulting clients in Germany, Australia and the U.K.

     Matt Sadinsky had a slightly different vision. He, too, began consulting, but wanted to  provide online automated training accessible 24/7. Sadinsky had the background to pull it off, but needed the subject matter and technical expertise. He joined up with Sease and the partnership was born.

     Sease was already well-known in the power industry across the southeastern United States. As a registered professional engineer and a NERC-Certified System Operator, he had actively participated in development and implementation of operating policies at NERC and the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council (SERC).

     As an organizational development consultant, Sadinsky had worked in human resources in the energy industry as well as a variety of other companies including Magellan Laboratories, the New York City Transit Authority, and Continental Can Company.

     Sadinsky and Sease understood that they were creating a business to respond to a specific market need. They knew they needed to move quickly. Within weeks, SOS Intl was up and running. Sease was teaching all day for his existing clients, and working most of the night developing training. Sadinsky was working long hours as well, selling their services and building the online university and company infrastructure.

     In November, 2002, Dominion Virginia Power in Richmond hired SOS to provide NERC training for their staff of system operators. All of the operators subsequently passed their NERC exams. SOS quickly gained a reputation in the industry as a game changer. One Dom VA Power executive commented, “We hired you to help our team to pass—well, the first couple of operators scored 92 percent and now the rest of the team is committed to trying to beat those scores!”

     Soon after, Southwest Power Pool (SPP), one of the NERC reliability regions, found the SOS Intl Web site in an online search and contacted Sadinsky. They liked SOS’s training philosophy and wanted a meeting. “At that point, we weren’t even sure we should commit to the expense of a trip to Little Rock,” laughs Sease.

     With scant resources, they made the trip. Much to their delight, they came away with an endorsement as a preferred vendor for Southwest Power Pool and their member utilities. The calls started pouring in.

     It was heady times for Sease and Sadinsky, a mix of the exciting realization that their business model was going to work, along with the drudgery and details of getting it all done.

 

More Power to Them

     SOS was also carving out a niche in customer service. While others were offering “tent training”—traveling to a site, setting up, teaching, and moving on—SOS was offering instructor-led and online training, testing, follow-ups, 24x7 access and direct phone and e-mail access.

     “We provided programs second to none, and also provided service second to none,” explains Sease. “In fact since Sadinsky and I were up all hours working, we would respond to e-mails at 2 a.m. or 5 a.m., whenever they came in. This also really reinforced our service mentality and our reputation.

      About this time, Sadinsky and Sease made contact with Robin Podmore, the developer of EPRI OTS, a state-of-the-art PC-based simulator. They were impressed and talks began.

     Sadinsky and Sease had an idea what this could do for their training classes. While system operators may spend their entire careers without ever seeing a voltage collapse or a blackout, recognizing and acting on a looming emergency or recovering quickly from a failure is at the core of system reliability. The power desk is almost always quiet and uneventful, but operators need to be ready to respond instantly to any kind of emergency.

     Months later, in August 2003, a massive blackout swept the northeastern United States, leaving 58 million in the dark. People demanded to know what had happened. In response, NERC issued recommendations to ensure that utilities would be better prepared to manage the grid, avoiding future black-outs. Among these was a mandate for 32 hours of Emergency Operations training recommending simulation.

     Talks were fairly far along with Robin Podmore and his partner Marck Robinson. So together, SOS, Incremental Systems and Power Data developed a curriculum using the PowerSimulator, called Emergency Operations with PowerSimulator (EOPS). Unlike basic tabletop exercises, this PowerSimulator could be accessed online at any time.

     Initially EOPS ran pre-programmed exercises. But before long, customers wanted the simulator to reflect their exact systems and to mirror real-time incidents. So SOS, along with their strategic partners, developed Custom Power Simulator (CPS), which has been used widely throughout America.

     “We were in the right place at the right time,” says Sease. “We had a very reasonably priced, well-serviced, high-quality training system to meet evolving NERC requirements.”

 

Plugging In

     “We believe we’ve changed the face of training in the power industry. By offering online and simulation training as well as classroom and on-the-job training, we’ve helped revolutionize the way people plan for, budget and deliver training,” Sadinsky explains.

     And in fact, when looking at their statistics, it’s not hard to believe. SOS has worked with more than 750 clients in all eight regions of the U.S. and Canada. In fact, in 2008, they issued more than 46,703 continuing education hours to 1,444 system operators.

     SOS’s training extends well beyond North America. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) began using EOPS coursework to train personnel in the Ministry of Electricity across Iraq and Baghdad in 2006. Since then, SOS strategic partner Robin Podmore has visited Iraq several times to facilitate model building on a tool called the BRICK (Bulk Reliability in a Compact Kit). It offers portable simulation, and is now in use across 24 companies, states, cities and regions in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New   Zealand and Iraq.

     SOS Intl has continued to stay ahead of the curve by developing new products, platforms and services to meet their customers’ needs. One way they have grown is through their move into Compliance Consulting. As industry requirements evolve, every company has to go through NERC audits to prove they meet the standards and are doing their part to make the grid reliable.

     “We want to make sure our customers are prepared in every way. We send top talent, with years of relevant experience, onsite to look over systems and processes and make recommendations. Our clients say it takes a huge burden off of them,” Sease explains.

     As with so many industries, the energy industry is seeing more and more baby boomers retiring and taking years of practical and real-life experience with them. There are now more new hires from schools and colleges as well as the military. Yet, speed in developing expertise is critical. SOS has responded by tailoring programs with an understanding of how these younger workers learn. They see it as critical to train across the generational divide.

     “Older workers are digital immigrants while the younger workers are digital natives,” explains Sadinsky. We’ve found that simulations in team training help bridge this gap.” Our clients say that causes their operators to respect each other more and, in pressure cooker simulations, to work together better,” he adds.

 

The Spark of the Future

     In fact, Sease and Sadinsky are so driven by market needs, that they’ve formed a new company, PREP Intl (Prequalified Ready Employees for Power Intl). Both men see it as a natural progression. They acknowledge that training does have its limits; it is only as good as the people receiving it. And that is the role that PREP plays. It provides career development, assessment and recruiting process consulting to the energy industry.

     PREP is currently working with the City of Cleveland. Cleveland was losing people on its power desk to retirement, maternity leave and health issues. They needed help and turned to PREP. PREP was able to provide them with key talent on an interim basis in the Cleveland area that worked out so well, it led to permanent employment.

     SOS and PREP are studying how they can be most effective under the new Smart Grid model. The goal of the Smart Grid is to promote reliability and offer more environmentally friendly energy, using such sources as wind power or solar energy. There will be a lot of emphasis on assuring reliability by using computers and other technologies to monitor and control the generation and flow of electricity.

     “Standards are always in a state of flux,” says Sease. He sees that as an ongoing source of business for SOS, and readily admits that the changing NERC regulations have been good for business. When asked how he sees SOS continuing to grow, he answers, “For now, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, more hard work helping adults learn, keeping our focus on our customers, providing high-quality service and ensuring their readiness.”

     “For future growth, we are exploring taking the model we’ve used in the electric industry and applying it to other industries. We think there is some applicability and are looking forward to seeing what we can do,” says Sease.

     “With the evolution of the power grid, we are on the verge of the largest investment in capital infrastructure of our lives. Those organizations who hire and train the best will win,” vows Sadinsky. And if history and our past success is any indication, clients of SOS Intl and PREP Intl will be right there among the winners.

Marcia Merrill is a Charlotte based freelance writer.
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