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ELECTRICAL & COMPUTER ENGINEERING

Spotlight

Electric power exec talks about turmoil, transition in U.S. utility sector

James H. Miller, chairman, president, and CEO of PPL Corp., spoke to an audience of about 100 at the University of Delaware on Wednesday, April 14, as part of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series.

“Many people think of the electric power industry as a stodgy and dull business,” Miller said, “but right now the utility sector is going through greater changes than I ever could have imagined when I began my career in the 1970s. It's characterized by tremendous turmoil and transition.”

Miller said that energy is central to the prosperity of a country and to its citizens' quality of life. “There's a close correlation between electricity and literacy rates,” he said. “Energy technologies are responsible for educating children and saving lives.

“We have an insatiable appetite for electricity in this country, and it's growing. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that the average home has 23 devices powered by electricity, including TVs, flat screens, video games, iPhones, iPods, computers and DVD players.”

With continued increases in usage predicted, Miller said that we have to consider how this demand will be met in the face of concerns about air and water quality and climate change.

At the same time, however, he emphasized prudent use of resources rather than conservation. “There's an awful lot of talk about conservation driving down the need for electricity, but to me that's counterintuitive to the continued progress of our country -- we want to make things, and that takes power. Using it effectively and efficiently is the key.”

One approach to this issue is a “smart grid” system to provide consumers with feedback on power use that can guide them in making choices about how and when to run various devices in their homes. Miller envisions this being available in the not-too-distant future.

In the face of regulatory uncertainty, environmental concerns and an aging power infrastructure, Miller said that there is no silver bullet; rather, progress must be made on all fronts from coal and gas to nuclear power and renewables such as wind and solar power. “There are immense challenges with all of these sources,” Miller said.

Nuclear power requires tremendous capital investment, the use of coal raises issues of how carbon capture and sequestration will be carried out, and funded and sustainable sources need to become more efficient if they are to be financially feasible.

One major problem, according to Miller, is that deregulation has been inconsistently implemented across the country. “Right now, we have a hybrid system,” he said. “We need to either return to a completely regulated system or open up a nationwide wholesale market where everyone pays the real cost of electricity. Our mission should be to formulate a national energy policy, not to have 50 different energy policies.”

Miller earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Delaware in 1977 after serving in the Navy for six years. He began his career in the electricity industry at Delmarva Power, where he held various engineering and management positions.

A member of the boards of directors of several energy-related and community organizations, Miller is on the leadership team for Education 2010, which is dedicated to improving education in Allentown, Pa., where he and his wife currently live. The couple recently endowed a scholarship at the University of Delaware that will go to a promising freshman electrical engineering student and will be renewable as long as the student maintains a 3.0.

Article by Diane Kukich


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