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15/07/15: Comment: Reflecting on 37 years in the energy industry

Our Network Strategy and Technical Support Director Mike Kay retires this month after a 37 year career that began as a 17-year-old apprentice at Norweb. He reflects on the industry and its transformation over the years.

"At age 16 I heard a charismatic talk about the work of engineers in distribution and I was hooked on the idea of harnessing a fundamental force of nature for public service. I started work as a student apprentice in March 1978 at Norweb. At that time Norweb employed just about 10,000 people and had shops in every town, or electricity showrooms as they wereMike Kay reflects on his 37 year career in the energy industry called.

Norweb was run as six different administrative areas, and each split into a number of districts. I think there were 27 districts in 1978.

Everything related to the distribution business was manual and here was no IT to speak of. Everything was done from paper-based record systems and a huge amount of local knowledge. I think after a few years working in a district you were expected to know every street name in your district. Substation plant details were held in a Cardex filing system, and the maps of the cables and lines were all hand drawn on linen.

It's hard to say how good or bad customer service was. There was no real reporting of it, and although we did record customer interruptions and customer minutes lost, they were at least twice what they are today. When we had bad weather in those days, it was managed in the district, and it was all managed on a much smaller scale then today and using local knowledge. For example the typing pool swapped their typewriters for telephones to set up in effect a call centre and one that had the advantage of knowing the locality at a time when many customers didn't even know their own postcodes. And if some customers were off for a few days they didn't seem to have expectations of rapid reconnection, and there was no local or national media interest.

Every aspect of the distribution business has changed almost beyond recognition in the equipment we use and how we do things. Some of the key heavy labour items like cable laying had been mechanized (eg excavators and winches), any issues were solved just by applying more manpower. This is nowhere more evident than in the engineering design of the network. As the industry was nationalised, by the 1980s we had very little capital allowance from the government, so building new assets was actively discouraged. But we did have lots of engineers, many of them technically gifted. We become fantastically expert in designing away the need for major investment by tweaking the existing network.

This high level of design became part of the Norweb DNA and persisted through Norweb being owned by United Utilities, and to a degree into Electricity North West. In a regulated world, this is the wrong behaviour: capital efficiency is not really measured on how effective the design is, whereas engineering design labour is subject to a very strong efficiency challenge. I was beginning to become a bit worried about this, but two decisions by Ofgem have corrected the problem; the equalization of capital and operating costs incentives in 2010 and the adoption of genuine long-term cost benefit modelling in 2015.
Over the years the basic assets have changed less, although they have changed to less labour-intensive variants, such as the replacement of paper cables and sweated joints, to plastic insulation and cold jointing techniques. And the assets are supplemented by lots of IT and other equipment that are the foundations of smart grids.

Whatever the future holds in terms of energy policy, distribution networks will be part of it, and innovation and inspiration will still be needed to meet customers’ needs by the middle of C21. I have enjoyed a fantastic career and I would have no hesitation in recommending a career in the distribution business."

Mike Kay will retire this month and Paul Bircham will be taking on the role of Networks Strategy and Technical Services Director.


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