Lee Willis: Power Delivery Expert

Sept. 6, 2012
Lee Willis, senior vice president of Quanta Services Technology, is widely regarded as the electric industry’s leading expert on power delivery planning and cost minimization.

Lee Willis, senior vice president of Quanta Technology, is widely regarded as the electric industry’s leading expert on power delivery planning and cost minimization. He has taught a course on power delivery planning more than 100 times in the last 35 years and will continue to teach it in the future.

The basic concepts of power delivery or power distribution planning have stayed the same, Willis said, although the computer tools used for planning, monitoring and control and the data sources available to manage the systems have improved.

His experience is comprehensive, however—in the past 30+ years, he has worked on more than 400 T&D planning projects around the world, “on every type of system and situation, including work on all seven continents (yes, Antarctica, too).”

His current work in a Fortune 500 company has also allowed him to direct a program of development of new methodology and technology at the industry's leading edge, while also working with major utilities on projects that make a difference to their bottom line. “Each side of my job keeps me current with where the industry is going, and why,” Willis said.

As an instructor, he presents courses on spatial electric load forecasting, integrated demand-side resource and energy delivery system planning. The spatial load forecasting class covers analysis and projection of peak demands and the setting of capacity targets for T&D planning. A survey of methods and their pros and cons is also offered. The demand side course covers how to combine the utility's overall business and policy goals, energy efficiency, distributed and demand response resource planning, and capacity planning of the local energy delivery T&D system.

Willis has held several other positions in his career besides senior vice president and instructor. Early in his career, he was with Houston Lighting and Power Co. in several positions, including supervisor of system planning. He then went to ABB in 1980 and worked in various positions including vice president. He also worked with KEMA as vice president of T&D planning and asset management until in July 2006 he cofounded what is now Quanta Services Technology division in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Quanta Services provides construction, maintenance and technology services to the electric and gas energy industries with over 19,000 employees operating in all 50 United States.

“Since I was one of the founders of our Technology group I've been able to help set policy and priorities from the beginning, so there is very little here I don't like,” Willis said. “But by far the best thing is that we have hired a group of incredibly bright and hard-working young engineers -- future industry leaders. They are fast moving and keep me challenged every day. I love that.”

Before Willis graduated with a bachelors’ in engineering, he made the decision to go into power T&D. He was still five semesters away from completing his masters’ degree.

“My decision was viewed as strange by friends and professors, since the college I attended (Rice University's School of Electrical Engineering) offered no power courses at all (it was basically a training ground for future computer designers),” he said.

“However, while I did ‘library research’ on salaries, job market growth, etc., I based my decision on discussions I had with engineers 10 to 15 years out of school, on what challenges and satisfaction their careers had given them. From this perspective power looked much better than computers, telecom, controls, or consumer electronics. I have never regretted my decision.”

Willis stressed the importance of distribution planning to the industry. He said that local delivery represents about 30% of the consumer cost for power. “Distribution’s local nature means it typically represents two-thirds of all power reliability problems, and the vast majority of the esthetic impact that the average utility customer sees. Good planning can make a 10-15% improvement in all these aspects, cost, reliability, and fit to the community.”

He said that over time all planners develop habits based on experience that makes them more productive in their work. “But many times this narrows their focus and precludes their ever seeing opportunities to solve problems in a novel and more effective way,” Willis said. “They tend to end up doing things in the same way over and over again. It's important to challenge yourself every so often to go about things in a totally different manner, merely to keep yourself and your skills from getting stale.”

In his “spare time,” Willis has written eight books on power systems and planning in the last 15 years. But he also enjoys building models of 18th-century sailing warships. He doesn’t build them from kits but makes every part from scratch. He makes the ships’ frames and planks out of wood, for example. “It takes years to finish one ship but that's the idea: when I finish one I just start another, so why hurry?”

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