EL&P talks about power, history with EPRI’s shining Starr

Dr. Chauncey Starr was the founding President, and later Vice Chairman of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). After serving more than a decade, he was appointed President Emeritus, the position he still holds. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday.


Dr. Chauncey Starr, EPRI
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EL&P spoke with Dr. Starr about EPRI; nuclear energy; WWII; the past, present and future of electricity; and the book he never got around to writing.

EL&P: As the founding President of EPRI, please tell us about the birth of the institute. What was the impetus?

Starr: In 1965, there was a huge blackout in the Northeast part of the U.S. that cut all the power for that entire section of the country, which triggered a congressional investigation. The Senate committee in charge of that investigation decided that the industry had been very lax in carrying on advanced development to take care of its systems. So they requested that the industry do something about it, and the industry’s reply was to formulate the Electric Power Research Institute. It was made a nonprofit institution in 1972, and they talked me into taking on putting those plans into action in 1973. I was, at that time, Dean of Engineering at UCLA.

EL&P: What do you say to critics who claim EPRI’s close ties to utilities prevent it from giving entirely objective solutions to power issues?

Starr: Well, of course, that issue was raised the very first day that EPRI was formed, and it’s a very natural response of both critics and the public. So, EPRI established-right from the very beginning-that all the work it does is open. It’s completely balanced, and it has gained respect from two distinct organizations, building up its credibility with outside agencies-including the environmental movement, which uses EPRI’s reports all the time-and with government agencies as well. At the same time, EPRI has convinced the electric power industry that it’s in their best interest to maintain that technical level of credibility. None of EPRI’s reports have ever been biased to expand an industry point of view. From a professional point of view, EPRI has always been as even-handed as science and engineering permits. That, incidentally, was one of the criteria required for me to take on the task of building the institute. From day one, that was the leading principal.

EL&P: What aspect of your career in the energy industry are you the most proud of?

Starr: [Chuckling.] I’m laughing because it’s very difficult to answer. You know, I was active in the Manhattan District. I was in charge of the research for the production plants for the first weapons material coming out of Oakridge. From the point of view of being able to meet a time schedule to end World War II, I was one of the contributors on the basic weapons material. From a patriotic point of view-if you want to put it that way-it was a major contribution. I was proud of that.

Then I spent 20 years working with a company now called Rockwell International. I built up a division called Atomics International, which, for 20 years, was supported by the Atomic Energy Commission on a major scale to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. We made many contributions in that area and were able to help improve the performance of nuclear power plants-particularly for civilian power production. I’m proud of that, too.

And after 20 years of that, I took early retirement to become Dean of Engineering at UCLA, where I instituted several programs, mostly on the environmental aspects of public health and technology. That, too, made me proud.

When the industry came to me to do this, I was already 60 years old. So, when I started EPRI, I did it instead of taking time off to write a book that I had scheduled on an area called risk analysis, and EPRI has been-from a management point of view-a tremendous achievement, very gratifying.

You know, it isn’t often that an individual gets the opportunity to contribute to society’s welfare and still have fun doing technical things.

EL&P: Did you get the book written?

Starr: No. As a matter of fact, I didn’t. I have a massive collection of notes. Now, I have written many articles, which someday I may assemble in the form of a book. I don’t know how much you know about the area of organized risk analysis, where you look at public problems and try to quantify the benefits, the costs, the failure possibilities and the consequences of that failure. Well, risk analysis has now become a requirement in almost all major government agencies, and my early work started that field going. There’s a Society of Risk Analysis, and it’s an active professional field-heavy on the intellectual and analytical side, very little on the hardware side. But, that’s been a continuing side activity for me. And, if I continue in good health, I may get around to writing the book I should have written 30 years ago.

EL&P: You chose EPRI over the book?

Starr: Any scholar will tell you that the opportunity to do something hands-on is a lot more exciting than the effort to put together content for a book, which you hope, maybe, someday, some future generation of people will pay attention to.

EL&P: As EPRI was forming, what was the role of electricity in American society?

Starr: Well, that’s one of the things EPRI actually funded and supported. Part of the story of EPRI was my own conviction-built up before, during and after World War II-that the flow of electricity into society-what we call “electrification”-is really the bloodstream of any modern society.

Those of your associates who used to travel to Moscow in the days of the Communist regime might remember that there was a huge sign in Moscow advertising electricity as the foundation of the state. What it amounts to is that the use of energy produces almost everything that modern society lives with, and electricity is the most efficient use of that energy.

EPRI has sponsored historical reviews about how electricity has changed American industry in the last 100 years; we’re very interested in that subject.

And I’m sure you’ve seen the robotics and communications development yourself-all of which are spin-offs of the use of electricity in society.

As you can tell, I can give you an all day lecture on that one.

EL&P: Now, has that role actually changed any, and did it follow the path you predicted for it?

Starr: Actually, it’s gotten bigger. What used to be primarily a U.S.-centered type of review or consideration has now spread out to the developing world beyond the industrial world. So, issues faced by the developing world are becoming part of the problem, because those countries, eventually, have to move into the electrified mode, and how they do this can be very heavily determined by how well they use modern technologies.

I have been gratified by the international spread of what we originally started for the U.S.

EL&P: How important will R&D be in the future? What will be the place of EPRI and similar organizations?

Starr: I think we’ve just started. As you can tell, I’m not only an enthusiast about the future for the use of electricity to make lifestyle better, but I think we’ve only just begun to open up the new areas. We have more opportunities ahead of us than we had in 1973 when I started EPRI. At that time, the industry just wanted to get it’s operating and system problems resolved-its bread and butter problems. As time went on, what we did was introduce advance concepts, which, ordinarily, they would have waited years for some manufacturer to try to develop and sell them.

As I mentioned before, when you work in the power industry, it’s not something you can do in a small garage somewhere. You really deal with large, expensive pieces of equipment. So, to move rapidly in the power industry, you really have to have big efforts. And the consortium effort that EPRI represented really gave an opportunity to broach new ideas. The bottom line is: No one company has the single resources to tackle an “iffy” problem. EPRI could because we were working on a bigger scale.

So, as time has gone on, we’ve gotten into more advanced ideas-how to use the best of what is coming out of the sciences and move it rapidly into use. From my point of view, the opportunity for societal improvement has gone up. And I think there are so many more opportunities now, and so many more that will continue to form in the future. EPRI will continue to be a large part of that.

EL&P: You have a fascinating history with nuclear energy. Please paint us a portrait of its development from your personal perspective.

Starr: I was part of the Manhattan District during the war, which we’ve already touched upon. That was the first use of fission-getting energy out of the uranium nucleus. The first practical use turned out to be for weapons; that was just a happenstance of history. All during the war, many of us were fully aware that the ultimate social use of nuclear fission would be for peaceful purposes. In fact, all of us hoped that the weapons business would be, somehow, brought under control.

So, when the war was over, I was offered several different opportunities. (I was at Oakridge National Laboratories at the time.) One was the possibility of opening up a new organization for developing nuclear power for civilian purposes, and that was the one that interested me. So, I did it. My activities at Atomic International in the

L.A. was one of the big national efforts to develop civilian nuclear technology. So, that was my original acquaintance with the electric power industry. Because the electric power industry is inherently very conservative and nuclear power was so new at that time, they had to be educated on all of this. So, I became one of the enthusiastic proponents of nuclear power and nuclear power demonstrations.

We launched the first tiny little nuclear power station that went into space. We put the first electric power from an experimental nuclear plant on a grid. (We went on the Southern California Edison grid.)

These are all steps trying to push nuclear power forward.

After 20 years of that, I still wanted to move forward with that enthusiasm, but my interests had broadened to the entire energy field.

EL&P: In your opinion, does nuclear energy have a bright future?

Starr: I happen to be a proponent of nuclear energy. I think it can be made-and has been made in this country-a very safe and solid choice. I don’t think there is any question that nuclear has a bright future in the 21st century.

It’s the only one of the major energy sources where the fundamental source-uranium-will be available for thousands of years. You can’t say that about coal, oil, or gas. It doesn’t make huge environmental and ecological changes in the region like hydroelectric; it’s not an intermittent contributor like solar and wind. Nuclear energy is a steady power source.

The nuclear percentage in this country today is about 20 percent. Within 100 years-assuming that nuclear power is given the political go-ahead-I think our 20 percent could rise to 40 to 50 percent. Within 500 years, it could be 80 to 90 percent. Of course, it depends upon what we decide to do about our own coal mining and our own natural gas resources. We’ve got lots of coal, but there’s a lot of problems with its use. And the development of new natural gas resources is slowing down. One has to project the future out with a lot of geologic unknowns.

EL&P: Moving from one political energy issue to another. What advice would you give industry executives as they move to extend deregulation?

Starr: I’ve been a student of deregulation, obviously. I think the concept of deregulation was not understood well by the political forces that moved it. When electricity was regulated, there was a certain stability in the cost management. And the Public Utility Commission (PUC) represented the consumer, allowing the utilities a fair return on their invested capital, but necessitating that the return was used efficiently to justify the rates. But, in general, the stockholders in utilities were considered the widows and orphans fund. They paid little more than a bank in return-with little grow, but extreme safety, the way you might set up a trust for you widowed mother.

Then came the philosophic deregulation movement wanting to push that safe system open to more competition. The competition was first opened up on the production side-the plants themselves. It went right to the heart of a utility’s operation, of course, although there are still physical monopolies in the industry.

Deregulation went awry when no control was placed on the plants. A lot of companies moved in, developing a trading market as well. KWh becoming a commodity.

My own feeling is that the PUC approach-the regulated approach-really is the way to work. In fact, it looks like it’s being forced back again. FERC has now become a national federal agency attempting to put some controls on all of this.

In the old days, before deregulation, every public utility network had a reserve capacity of roughly 20 percent to take care of the accidents of nature-a major failure, for example. So they could always deliver power at a fixed price because the costs of variables like reserve capacity was already in the rate structure. Well, that reserve capacity investment was protected by the PUC. That’s been broken under deregulation.

If you want to build a power station and sell power, you can under deregulation. However, you are not likely to build two and keep one in reserve. There’s the problem with deregulation. The unregulated system has too many failure modes.

EL&P: If you could draw the attention of the Bush Administration and Energy Secretary Abraham to discuss the power industry, are there any overlooked issues that you’d like to personally point out to them?

Starr: I read the National Energy Policy. That policy, by itself, is a mundane document, which, I guess, is the nicest way to put it. It’s got everything in it, and something for everybody. They didn’t close the door on anything. They assembled to conventional notions of the time the plan was put together.

I think there are specific things that the Administration has overlooked on a big, national policy basis. I don’t think there has been enough work on one the biggest energy users in the U.S., the transportation industry, which opens a whole Pandora’s box of its own: the efficient use of airplanes, railroads, autos, what controls are put on getting the auto manufacturer to offer the consumer enticements to reduce oil consumption.

These are delicate political items, yes, but you can’t overlook transportation, which represents roughly half of all the energy use in the country. You cannot let that sit by itself.

EL&P: You celebrated your 90th birthday in April. The entire staff of EL&P would like to congratulate you on that milestone. Is there any advice you would give us as we celebrate our 80th?

Starr: Everything I’ve tackled has had enough challenge to be interesting, and I’ve always managed to find new approaches and new ideas, to be creative. And the act of creativity carries a huge amount of satisfaction.

So, my advice to you and your readers is more of a wish that you recognize creative opportunities. It’s easy to take what’s in the “in” basket and move it to the “out” basket and complete your job. That is not creativity.

You need to have fun. That’s the knowledge my 90 years has taught me. If you’re not having fun, you ought to look for something different to do.

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