Energy Storage, Executive Insight, Wind

How did you get your Start in the Grid?: Jennifer Didlo of AES Southland

“How did you get your Start in the Grid?” is a monthly feature which focuses on longtime industry leaders talking about their careers, personal hobbies and thoughts about the future of the profession. This edition features Jennifer Didlo, president of AES Southland. She oversees wind assets in Palm Springs, Tehachapi, Oregon and Wyoming, among many other duties.

1. How did you get your start in the grid?

My career really started while in college, studying to receive my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. In my junior year I decided to take a six-month full-time internship at a pump design company in the heart of Los Angeles. I learned a lot about the logistics of working in a medium-sized company, how traditionally structured company’s work, how to work with people from varied backgrounds and, mostly, how much I did NOT want to be a pump engineer. But seriously, that experience taught me the importance of being able to identify the things you don’t want to do and why that is just as important as knowing what you do want to do.       

Fast forwarding to my first real job as a junior reliability engineer for the local utility, I remember walking into the plant manager’s office and proclaiming that we needed more engineers out in the field – not as field engineers, but integrated into the teams as team leaders/foremen. About two weeks later, another junior engineer and I were assigned to run the maintenance crew and an operating crew. Of course, when I made the observation I did not mean me. However, it was the funniest thing I had ever done, or imagined doing. I had to figure out how to communicate with the team. It was bumpy for about six months, but eventually we figured it out.

2. You’ve been a plant manager at several utilities. How were those experiences similar, different and preparational for the rest of your career? 

I’ve had the incredible fortune to work both for an Investor Owner Utility and an Independent Power Producer. Both companies have afforded me the opportunity to perform many varied roles. Being a plant manager enables visibility into the entire business: people, costs, commercial, etc. It really allowed me to experience all aspects of running a business and figuring out which things I found interesting and which things were less interesting. 

3. What was the biggest challenge as you rose through the ranks? 

I am a very direct person and it turns out not everyone likes straight talk. Through my nearly 30-year career I have had to learn, and am still learning, how important it is to know your audience. I haven’t toned down the directness of my messages, but I have definitely toned down and learned to change how I deliver my message, or ask my question or approach a problem. It turns out that one wrong move early on can take years to undo. My experience has been that how I communicate with people has a huge impact, even more than what I am communicating.

4. Did you have a particular mentor or mentors who shaped and sharpened you leadership skills along the way? 

The founders of AES instilled in me, as a leader, two very profound things 1) each of us wants to make a difference and 2) we are all fallible. Engaging people with these beliefs perpetuates an incredibly productive set of leadership behaviors. About 20 years ago I joined AES, and a few years later became a plant manager and those founding AES beliefs have been a very powerful guiding force for me. I have had the opportunity to build many different teams, and have found that if I keep these two themes front and center, I am able to lead the team (whether an operating, development, special project) to great outcomes where everyone feels connected to the results, understands their role, demands open and honest communications and ultimately enjoys work. AES’ culture continues to support these beliefs today – providing opportunities to grow and contribute to great outcomes and in doing so “have fun through work,” which is actually one of our values.

5. Your career has covered a lot of unique sectors in the power space. Do you have a window into what our generation mix will look like in 20 years?

 The energy industry is transforming at a pace like never before through our use of technologies and new innovative applications. Our industry is transforming the way the cellular industry did when it reached the point of packages with unlimited minutes. Eventually, energy in terms of MWh will also be a thing of the past. We will 1) instead talk about what the MWh enable versus their literal cost and 2) we will pay for the quality of the services delivered by those MWh, not the volume of MWh. With the adoption of renewable resources, we are oversupplied with MWh and have energy abundance. Couple that with the significant advancements in the application of lithium-ion batteries to the grid, and the piece of the conversation that is missing is how to ensure we can maintain resilience and reliability in a highly decentralized, organically grown, customer controlled energy world. I think the answer will include rate reform, of course, but also recognition of the reliability attributes of each delivered megawatt hours (MWh).  They are not all created equally.

6. What does Jennifer Didlo do to relax outside of work. Do you have hobbies or passions that offer some respite from pressures on the job? 

A good day is one that includes a lunch-time run, a few hours of family time to enjoy watching our next generation learn and develop, and an hour or so to catch up on the latest technical article. 

Editor’s Note: If your grid-sector company or utility has an interesting person to feature in this series, contact Senior Editor Rod Walton at [email protected]

Previous “How did you get your Start in the Grid?” features:

Ben Fowke of Excel Energy

Fidel Marquez of ComEd  

Kelly Speakes-Backman of Energy Storage Association  

Russ Vanos of Itron   

Brian Slocum of ITC   

Rick Riley of Entergy Arkansas   

Greg Ferree of Southern California Edison