From Disruption comes Progress: Q&A with POWER-GEN Keynote Speaker Robert Yeager

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Robert Yeager is a Pittsburgh boy all the way. He was raised in the City of Bridges and attended Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh universities, before taking a job with hometown-based Westinghouse.

He lifted himself through the ranks and has been President of Emerson’s Power and Water Solutions business since 2004. The job takes him around the world and through the breadth of the power industry changes.

Yeager will be one of POWER-GEN International’s keynote speakers in the Tuesday, December 4 session, along with Greg Scheu of ABB Americas and host utility Orlando Utilities Commission Board President Gregory Lee.

He started in nuclear energy and has seen the entire power generation sector evolve over three-plus decades. Yeager is all about meeting the changes head-on, believes automation is good for all and embraces emerging technologies as long as we ensure the accuracy of all that computations.

He participated in a Q&A with POWER-GEN, focusing on the lessons of his career and the challenges ahead for the industry. Plus he gives a little sneak peek into his keynote address.

What drew you to the industry?

“I grew up in Pittsburgh with an admiration for Westinghouse, a titan in the industry that pushed the boundaries of what was possible. We grew up hearing stories about legends like Tesla – who was a Westinghouse employee – and was completely transfixed with AC generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors and lighting.

“Thanks to industry frontrunners like Tesla, and innovation like alternating current power generation and transmission, there was a magnetic attraction to the field. Today, people want to be Zuckerberg, but then – we wanted to be Tesla.”

When did you know you were ready for your job?

“At the beginning of my career, I worked in the nuclear group of field engineering. There, I spent time walking the floors of power plants and working side-by-side with customers. It was fast paced, hands-on and exhilarating. It was in this role that I learned how to solve problems on the fly and how to anticipate customers’ needs. These two skills have served me well throughout my career and have kept me engaged. Whether it’s a new technology or a problem that seems impossible, that’s where it’s fun to be. Every day I walk through the door, I feel lucky to do what I do.

How do you see this disruption on the grid playing out over the next decade?

“The power sector is experiencing more disruption than ever before, and companies are being forced to adopt and adapt to deal with the evolving market.

“However, with disruption, comes progress. From an automation perspective, I believe as we continue to see technology advancements, there will be better redundancy, reduced complexity and improved transparency. Specifically, for Emerson Power & Water Solutions, we are innovating to address more renewables on the grid, for example. Our Ovation compact controller was designed specifically for renewables and the fast-growing microgrid market. It extends Emerson’s Ovation control technology to better manage the flow of energy from various sources to ensure continuous, reliable generation for these emerging industries.”

“We are able to rely more heavily on the accuracy of our computing while reducing human error. As power’s aging workforce continues to cause concern among leaders in the industry, digital transformation will enable us to rely more heavily on technology and train teams more efficiently. And, as power experts begin to retire, the digitally transformed power plant – with its built-in domain expertise – can help companies ensure their plants are optimized for peak performance.

“There’s no roadmap and every organization and even employee has a different definition of digital transformation. As an industry, this is an exciting time as we see companies push and move forward on different objectives and priorities.”

What should we be careful about as we proceed in power generation?

“As with all industries these days, there’s going to be an increased focus on security and cybersecurity within power, especially as we continue to see the digitization of our industry and workforce.

“The goal of our technologies is to provide peace of mind for our customers. In addition to having state of the art technology and more than five decades of expertise, we also bring the top security measures and certifications to our systems across the board. We reviewed and tested our solution with the Department of Homeland Security and exceeded all compliance standards for the U.S. SAFETY Act, and our control solution has been designated as Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technology.

“Our customers want to test new protocols and processes to optimize their operations – but want to do this carefully. That’s where our ‘Embedded Digital Twin’ technology comes in – allowing companies to test any proposed adjustments to operations risk-free and in real time before they are applied to the plant. It runs in parallel with the real control system, making advanced testing possible without impacting operations. Not only does this system maximize reliability of plants, but it also increases profitability, and who doesn’t want that for their business?

“And as new generations join the workforce, they can be trained on digital twin systems, preparing them much more quickly for real-world plant situations.”

Can you give me a few of the key themes to your keynote speech?

“Yes, I’m honored and excited to be talking about a handful of themes, including digital transformation, emerging technologies – like digital twinning – and the next generation of power.

“Of course, I’ll also be sharing the innovation of Emerson’s Power & Water Solutions as well. That’s it for now though. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers!”

What can POWER-GEN mean to forging bonds in an “all of the above” power generation sector?

“While I love to learn and hear from others in the industry during presentations, what I find to be most valuable at conferences is networking and making connections within the industry. Even those industries not directly correlated to power and water, it’s important for me as a pioneer and innovator in the industry to learn about complementary offerings.

“I enjoy hearing about the innovation, among others in the industry, and find it inspiring for my everyday work and dreams for our business. The more collaboration and connections we can make as an industry, we’ll continue to move our entire industry forward.”

What do you do for fun in your time off?

“I enjoy running, golfing and spending time with my family.”

What is your best advice for future engineers?

“It doesn’t matter what you do or what field of engineering you enter, but if you are passionate and have a drive for something, then it can transcend your career. If you truly follow you heart, it can make a gigantic impact on who you are.”