Energy Northwest leaders aim to better promote benefits of nuclear power

Energy Northwest recently announced some changes, including a new CEO and promotions within its leadership team. This includes a decision by the company’s executive board to name Brad Sawatzke as chief executive officer, after serving as interim CEO since the end of March.

Brad Sawatzke

Prior to being named CEO, Sawatzke had most recently served as the company’s chief operating officer/chief nuclear officer, after joining Energy Northwest nearly eight years ago. He also spent 29 years with Xcel Energy, mainly at its nuclear plant in Minnesota.

“We’re confident Brad will ensure this agency provides the most reliable and cost-effective power and energy solutions to regional electric customers,” said Sid Morrison, chairman of the Energy Northwest executive board.

Grover Hettel replaced Sawatzke as chief nuclear officer this spring, after joining Energy Northwest as its vice president of nuclear operations six years ago. Following previous stops at nuclear sites across the country, including most recently in Arizona, Florida and Michigan, Hettel said Energy Northwest is unique compared to other places he’s been to.

Grover Hettel

Grover Hettel

“Our closeness with the community — it’s a lot more of an integral part of the community than it is elsewhere. We have 1,000 to 1,100 regular positions, as well as another 1,500 to 2,000 for contractors during refueling. Our employees are responsible for giving back $150,000 annually to the community through United Way and other charitable organizations,” Hettel said.

Filling Hettel’s former office is the new operations vice president, Bob Schuetz, who also was promoted internally after serving as the plant’s general manager for nearly four years.

Schuetz is a Navy veteran, serving as a submarine officer for 28 years, with his final assignment as deputy commander and chief of staff for the commander of Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet.

A career path that flows from the military to Energy Northwest is common enough that the company was included on Victory Media’s list of Top 10

Bob Schuetz

Bob Schuetz

Military Friendly Employers in 2015 and 2016. Victory Media is an organization formed by veterans to help ease the transition from the military to a civilian career. A recent study found veterans make up 28 percent of Energy Northwest’s work force.

The company’s executive board also made an organizational change to move its hydro, wind and solar operations under the leadership of its vice president for corporate services, Brent Ridge. Ridge also will oversee new development and energy business services.

These internal moves and promotions speak to Hettel’s opinion that “nuclear power offers the opportunity to learn more. We do a lot of things to make sure we are developing our employees and offer a significant training program.”

Hettel said Energy Northwest promotes a “strong core nucleus of qualified, dedicated and knowledgeable leadership.”

Brent Ridge

Energy Northwest operates the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant responsible for providing electricity to about one million homes in the state, making it the third largest provider of electricity in Washington.

Operating north of Richland, some newcomers and those living outside the Tri-Cities might not realize they have a nuclear plant so close.

Hettel says in the past “we would have taken this as high praise because we’ve blended in, and had no safety issues, but now we want to share the benefits to the area. We run safely and reliably. We want to start making ourselves known because we have a lot to offer and we want people to be aware of the benefits of nuclear power.”

Those benefits include carbon-free power. Schuetz said if the same amount of power was to be provided using a traditional natural gas plant, it would be equivalent to the carbon created by more than three-quarters of a million cars, or about 25 percent of the vehicles on the road in Washington.

And while Energy Northwest also operates hydro, solar and wind projects, “natural resources can’t always provide power 24 hours a day,” Schuetz said. “The costs are similar to solar and on-shore wind, and actually beats the cost of solar, minus the subsidies. We’re clean, cost-effective and reliable.”

For those who might raise concerns about the safety of the plant, Schuetz reminded the community, “the plant operates incredibly safely. It’s going to shut itself down if there’s an issue. Two nuclear regulators are on site at the Columbia Generating Station, and they bring in special inspection teams from outside agencies, including a federal regulator and nonprofit group, to make sure we run safely and operate efficiently.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, lobbyists for the nuclear technology industry, recently examined the economic impact of the Columbia Generating Station and found it provides more than $690 million in economic output, including $475 million in Washington alone. This comes from its support of nearly 3,000 jobs in the state through direct and indirect employment created from the operations at the site.

The same study found that between 2018 and 2043, it’s expected operations at the Columbia Generating Station will generate more than $8.9 billion in economic impact to the state of Washington, and another $425 million to the rest of the nation.

Energy Northwest works with the Bonneville Power Association to provide the generated power to homes and businesses down the grid.

“A close relationship between us and BPA is very different and more integrated than what you might find elsewhere,” Schuetz said. “We sell all power at cost and they pass it along to the ratepayers. It’s convenient to reduce power on their request, and to do this successfully requires a daily working environment.”

This is known as “load following” and allows the Columbia Generating Station to reduce its output based on need. This could happen during the spring when mountain runoff might create more hydroelectric power for BPA and lessen the need for nuclear power.

Providing clean, cost-effective and reliable power is the overall goal for the company, Schuetz said. And as the company’s newest operations vice president, he breaks that down even further by recalling the times the plant came offline unexpectedly.

“Supporting that is basic leadership by all members of the organization. We all are working as a team,” he said

Schuetz also said, “there’s an opportunity to be even more efficient and cost-effective.”

He cited a projection of the average cost per kilowatt to come in at 4.35 cents for the next 24 months, compared to the 4.7 cents from 2016-17 or 6.3 cents between 2011-12.

One of the main strategies to reduce costs, while also maintaining reliability, is to “refine our maintenance strategy,” Schuetz said. “Fix equipment when it needs it, but not too much.” Schuetz also cited the times Energy Northwest has seized the opportunity to combine jobs simply through attrition, reducing the overall work force by about 100 people, strictly through voluntary departures.

The Association of Washington Business named Energy Northwest its Employer of the Year in 2016.

Columbia Generating Station has been owned and operated by Energy Northwest since it first went online in 1984, and plays a role in providing Washington consumers with the second-lowest power rates in the nation, just behind Louisiana.

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