Robin Podmore develops computer application for power system operations. When his son entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 2001, Podmore saw how military programs took raw, talented men and women and trained them to work occasionally under the highest levels of stress and danger, with continuous, dedicated service and watchfulness during hours and hours of routine service watches. He realized that these skills applied directly to many utility jobs, especially power system operators and substation relay technicians.
Podmore also gained a deep and enduring respect for the contributions made by military personnel and veterans to our country. He made numerous visits to see his son, Captain Steve Podmore, and observed key training events and programs, including the Al Taqqadum Air Base in Iraq for three days during the war in 2008.
“I have a deep appreciation of what our veterans do to protect our nations and what our power system operators do to keep the lights on,” Podmore said.
So Podmore started the Power4Vets program. His company, IncSys, was awarded a $3.6 million DOE ARRA workforce training grant in 2010. The company committed to recruit, train, certify and place 120 veterans in jobs as system operators.
The mission of the Power4Vets program is to help veterans start new careers “in the exciting and evolving energy sector,” said Podmore. “The men and women who monitor and control the North American electric power grids are a highly specialized and highly trained group of operators who shoulder a huge responsibility. The quality of their decisions affects (1) the reliable delivery of electricity to millions of customers; (2) the safety and lives of field crews; and (3) the protection of multi-million dollar equipment.”
Power4Vets does more than redirect veterans to job postings. It also prepares veterans for the job by providing relevant online coursework, simulator training, certification prep work, personal coaching, and individualized job placement assistance. Since its inception, 61 vets have become NERC-certified, 57 have transitioned from military to power industry careers, 36 have transferred from other jobs to power industry careers, and 68 vets have either trained for or upgraded to better jobs in the industry.
The program uses the PowerSimulator, previously developed by Podmore. The PowerSimulator operator training simulator, developed jointly by IncSys and PowerData, is currently the leading simulator for helping NERC-certified system operators comply with the mandatory ERO standards for continuing education, emergency operations and simulator-based training.
The NERC System Operator Exam asks questions that assess students’ ability to perform a typical set of reliability related tasks.
Podmore said that prior to the Power4Vets program, most candidates took the NERC test after they had been on the job at a utility for a year or two, having the benefit of on the job training and field tours.
“So in the past, we had a catch 22 for veterans: You cannot pass the NERC test without having worked in a utility, and you need a NERC certification to beat out the intense competition to get a job as a system operator trainee in a utility,” Podmore said.
The PowerSimulator allows veterans to break through the Catch 22. Through simulation, they perform most of the reliability tasks that actual system operators have to perform. They do this with a PALCO Power and Light Company power system. This is the same hypothetical PALCO power system that many real power system operators have been trained with. They get to experience a whole range of emergency operating conditions that most operators do not ever see on the real system, for example, complete system blackout and restoration, voltage collapse, and cascading outages.
“PowerSimulator lets you make mistakes without damaging equipment, putting customers in the dark or risk of harming field crews,” Podmore explains. “It makes both on-line and classroom training totally engaging. There is only so much time a student can spend watching MOOCs [massive online open courses]. “
With PowerSimulator, students are using the classical experiential learning cycle. “See something happen, figure out why it happened, understand what principle was being applied, use the internal knowledge to anticipate a similar situation in the future,” he said.
Podmore has a passion to help vets, but his passion for the electric power field developed over time, he said. He received his B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1968, then elected to study for a PhD in electrical engineering on computer modeling of power system networks and graduated in 1973. He had a choice between a New Zealand Electricity Department-sponsored project and a New Zealand Navy-sponsored project on sonar research. He chose the electricity project.
“I joined the IEEE Power and Energy Society as a graduate student, but the power systems track was not as appealing in the 1970s when power labs were filled with antiquated electrical machines,” Podmore said.
Podmore dedicated his career to the development of computer applications for power system operations with a heavy focus on operator training simulators. He co-founded ESCA Corp. (now Alstom T&D) in 1979 and served initially as vice president of research and then vice president of Business Development. At ESCA he was the product champion for development of the ESCA Dispatcher Training Simulator. He was a key contributor to the DTS proposal for Carolina Power and Light, and this project became ESCA’s entrée into the EMS business.
Podmore founded IncSys in 1990 and soon thereafter entered into an agreement with EPRI to become a commercializer of the EPRI Operator Training Simulator (OTS). Since that time, his company, with the support of PowerData Corp. has been continuously working to lower the costs and improve the ease of use of PowerSimulator with EPRI OTS.
To this end, Podmore was a founding member of the EPRI Control Center Application Programming Interface (CCAPI) working group, an early champion of the Common Information Model (CIM) and a member of the NERC Data Exchange Working Group, which led to the adoption of the NERC- and IEC-endorsed CIM XML standard for exchange of operational network models.
“I have to be a life-long learner to keep up,” Podmore said. “My goal is to keep learning as much as possible about system operations by talking and listening to real expert power system operators, reading about all the new trends and capturing this in simulator scenarios for the benefit of other system operator students.”
Podmore’s mission has extended beyond veterans. He has also helped other nations improve lives. Podmore ,with the support of Chris Mosier from PowerData Corp., delivered the first PowerSimulator Train the Trainer class with Generic Models to inaugurate the Baghdad School house in Iraq in January 2008. In August 2008 ,he and Mosier completed the second PowerSimulator Train the Trainer class with an Iraq Custom Model and nine Iraq Ministry of Electricity engineers and system dispatchers.
Now, he is co-chair of the IEEE Community Solutions Initiative. Community Solutions Initiative is a not-for-profit member group of IEEE Power & Energy Society. CSI is committed to open-source design and delivery of energy solutions to the world’s poorest and most energy-deprived populations. Its mission is to use renewable energy and technology to improve lives of people in remote communities in a sustainable way. The vision is to enable non-government organization partners to provide access to basic electrical services for 50 million people within 10 years
“The fact that I can use my gifts to help entrepreneurs in Africa bring clean light, cell phone charging and ultimately better education and jobs to villagers in Africa is very motivating and challenging and rewarding and humbling,” Podmore said.
Podmore is humble about his success. He credits other people when asked about how much good he has done. “I really need to give credit to Marck Robinson, president and founder of PowerData, for his contribution to making all the simulation software work,” Podmore said. “And also to my wife Stella who serves as IncSys CFO and keeps me focused and down to earth. Having a strong faith helps a lot, too.”