NERC standards pose challenges for IT innovation at power utility

Ask Steve Dykstra about NERC standards, and his eyes light up. For Dykstra, as director of shared services at power utility American Transmission Co. (ATC) in Waukesha, Wis., the North American Electric Reliability Corporation means everything.

NERC sets the safety and reliability standards for public utilities. Complying with NERC standards is a full-time job for many people; creating an innovative IT environment to support that effort is quite a challenge. But Dykstra is up for the job.

For instance, imagine having to clear foliage a set number of feet away from any power line along the rural roads of Wisconsin. "We have over $2.5 billion worth of assets in the field," says Dykstra in this video interview for's CIO Innovators series. "There is a lot of maintenance. … [V]egetation management is a unique niche of that process, where we can't allow anything to grow into the lines and short-circuit the lines."

ATC has been trying out mobile solutions and Global Positioning Systems to help solve the problem.

Dykstra formed a "tiger team" to help conceive and implement technology innovations. That team consists of a corporate cybersecurity consultant, an enterprise architect, "and kind of an unusual third person in the mix -- an individual who manages the asset data and records management GIS [geographic information system] category of the business," he said.

"The reason I've got him at the lead and supported by the other two is that he tends to think more outside the box, more innovatively. He's got that type of mind-set that really brings the value to the organization in that respect," Dykstra said. "Without a creative mind-set, I think you limit yourself sometimes to a less effective contribution, because you tend to get myopic in regard to what you're really trying to accomplish from a pure technological solutions standpoint, rather than listening again to the business."

Read the full transcript from this video below:  

NERC standards pose challenges for IT innovation at power utility

Laura Smith: Hello, I'm Laura Smith from, and joining me here
in Scottsdale is Steve Dykstra, director of information services and
support at American Transmission Company in Madison, Wisc. American
Transmission owns and operates the high-voltage electric transmission
system in portions of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois. They
provide the pathway for power into communities. Thanks for joining us,

Steve Dykstra: My pleasure.

Laura Smith: Steve, I wonder if you could tell us what you think the CIO's role
in innovation is?

Steve Dykstra: The CIO's role in innovation, as it pertains to my industry, is to
really look holistically at the business. Understand it well; look for solutions
that transcend all elements of the business, but also to track where the
dollars move within the business. You have to look for those innovative
solutions to provide the strength in those areas so that you can move the
company toward its strategy effectively and in order to do that you have to
understand what the needs are, again, holistically, as broadly as you can,
by understanding those that you'll serve.

Laura Smith: How would you calculate the return in investment for an innovative

Steve Dykstra: Again, in my industry it's a little bit unique, because we are an
electric utility, and we are transmission only. The return of investment
focus goes twofold, one in regard to the overall impact to the
organization, because we are highly regulated, we are a monopoly. The focus
is more toward the ultimate impact to the rate payer, so the end use
electric consumer is whom you're trying to impact with your decision.
Reliability is king in our business. We have to keep the lights on 24/7/365. To the extent you're doing that, you have to do it prudently so that you're
not gold plating your system. It's a real balance in regard to, where you
spend your money, how hard you push on ROI versus the risk management
component that comes with our business. It's a little bit of a unique
element that way.

The second part would be in regard to the IT purer type of projects and
things that we take on. Those we try to emphasize more of an ROI, looking
for return in regard to, consolidation of applications, complimenting into the
business, the productivity, the construction element of a business, which is
really where we make our money and supporting that effectively through ROI
decisions for employee productivity and performance that come from purer IT
types of projects.

Laura Smith: And what sorts of technologies are you pursuing to provide an
innovative way to lower costs?

Steve Dykstra: One of the key elements of my job faces the asset management
component of the business. We have over $2.5 billion worth of assets in the
field and so as a result, there's a lot of maintenance that goes on. And to do
that effectively, I need to be able to look at how I feed work order
information, asset condition information, vegetation management is another
unique niche of that process, where we can't allow anything to grow into
the lines and short circuit the lines. So one of the things I've done, is
I've developed a "tiger team" of three individuals that really look at the
innovative opportunities to feed that side of the business. That reports up
through construction, so it's the two prong element of where the dollars
flow through the organization.

That "tiger team" consists of my corporate saver security consultant, my
enterprise architect, and kind of an unusual third person in the mix, which
is my individual that manages the asset data and records management GIS
category of the business. The reason I got him at the lead, and supported
by the other two, is that he tends to think more outside the box, more
innovatively so he's got that type of mind set that really brings the value to
the organization in that respect. Without a creative mindset, I think you
limit yourself sometimes, to a less effective contribution because you
tend to get myopic in regard to what you're really trying to accomplish
from a purer technological solutions standpoint rather than listening to
the business. He's close to the business, the correlation or the connection
between he and the cyber security, and the enterprise architect creates the
framework of the technology, while he's allowed to let his creative juices
flow, so to speak.

Laura Smith: And you mentioned, earlier to me, that the growth in your company
will be in construction. What innovative strategies will you be able to use
to accomplish your goals in that area?

Steve Dykstra: Well, as you said, "Business development really goes in the
direction of construction, building new lines in new places right now." As
you had mentioned in the beginning, the footprint is pretty well confined,
and defined at this point in time. The ability to branch out beyond that
requires scalability, and it requires a lot of communication flow between
the home office, and very dispersed geographic areas. I have individuals
that work in sections of line that can be anywhere from one mile long to,
in the case of a big project we just finished a few years ago, 250 miles
long. They're spared at all costs, that section as we call it, of the
spread of the project.

To be able to communicate effectively in very remote areas of say, northern
Wisconsin, where the forest is predominant to an infrastructure. They are
in these remote locations and need to have access to data such as real
estate information. How wide is the right away? What do we secure? What are
the legal limits of that? What are the land owner interface challenges that
we might face? Even to the extent, a very unique one that you might be
interested in from an environmental standpoint, we had a hibernating bear
near a line at one point in time. Where we couldn't disrupt this mother
bear and her cubs, and you have to make everybody aware of that. So, if
somebody's new coming on the job site, if you have that communication
moving effectively throughout those individuals across, again, very large
spreads of territory, they know that by looking at a tablet that tells
them, "Here's where I'm at, I'm between these two pole sections, the bear
is in this section here. I can’t' go there, I can go here." etc. It
expedites the construction process in that respect.

Laura Smith: That's really interesting. Well thank you Steve for joining us
today, and sharing your insights. We really appreciate it.

Steve Dykstra: My pleasure.

Laura Smith: This is Laura Smith, from, and thank you for watching.


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