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Terry Boston: His Story, Lessons for Today

April 11, 2023 Powerlines

As part of the IE Cleantech Corner Initiative, the UNC student group that helps develop content and speakers for the Cleantech Summit, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Terry Boston who will be speaking on many panels at this year’s Summit. Mr. Boston was CEO of PJM, the largest independent grid operator in the world, for 8 years. He also worked at TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) for 35 years and was a presidential appointee to President Obama’s national infrastructure advisory council in 2017. Among many other experiences, Boston retired from PJM in 2016 and now serves on Blattner Strategy Board, the largest constructor of renewable energy in the US. When asked about how he got interested in the energy space, Boston told a heartwarming story: “My grandfather’s farm got electricity on September 9th, 1939. He used to talk about how different the world was with electricity so I naturally became interested. Literal tears came to his eyes when I told him I was going to work at the TVA.”

In 2008, Boston left TVA and became president and CEO of PJM. Here, he identified the unprecedented risk associated with the variability of wind and solar that they hadn’t seen with other energy assets before. PJM addressed the issue of intermittency with a battery market, installing the first successful ones around 2010 to do low-frequency control, balancing the variability that comes with wind and solar. Boston emphasized the importance of a reliable electric grid: “All of my career has been focused on three words: Reliability, Resilience, and Robustness. Clearly, the most important of those in my mind is reliability because if the lights aren’t on, nothing else you do matters!” PJM serves 63 million people with their power system, coordinating and directing the region’s transmission grid. After retiring in 2016, Boston went to Hawaii. It wasn’t long before he got a call from Alberta, Canada, asking him to negotiate their climate policy and discuss the phasing out of coal plants. He remarks on his short retirement: “After being on the island of Oahu Waikiki Beach for about three months, I said, I’m ready.”

Boston did not hesitate to jump back into things, serving on the Blattner Strategy Board as mentioned above and being chair of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council E-PRO executive committee. He even did keynotes at COP22 in Morocco on the importance of storage for renewable integration. Boston now lives in a passive solar home, with 8,000 pounds of granite in the floor that stores the heat from the sun during the day and releases it during the night. The windows are also designed so that there are large overhangs allowing the sun to be shaded. Zero sunlight comes in up until June 22nd, and then full sunlight comes in during the winter. There is also 10 kW of solar and battery storage on their roof. Mr. Boston certainly practices what he preaches.

Cleantech is honored to have Boston as one of our keynote speakers, which will be titled “Repowering Earth: Reliable, Resilient, Robust, and Sustainable- The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be.” When explaining the concept, he pointed to the massive difference between our electricity forecast in 2000 and what we actually have today: “In the year 2000, no one had a budget for wind and solar. We’ve built more wind and solar than any other resource thanks to the production tax credit and the price of the wind and solar coming down with volume.” Boston’s keynote will focus on how we got to this unexpected energy scene today and where we can expect to go in the future. His presentation will hit on the history of blackouts, threats to the power grid when he started working at PJM vs. threats today, the resiliency of the power grid, examples of wind and solar batteries, plug-in hybrid vehicles, and more. When looking to the future, Boston will delve into microgrids and the DC power system.

Boston will also be speaking on the “Hydrogen and other Long term Storage Options” panel in addition to his keynote. When discussing this panel (which will be moderated by Bill Capp), he brought up some key issues pertaining to both short and long-term storage. Right now, the main form of short-term energy storage is lithium-ion batteries. Boston actually sees us moving away from lithium as it is too valuable: “I see us going toward more common battery material like iron, salt, and zinc that are much lower in cost than lithium, nickel, and cobalt and are also fairly abundant.” As for long-term storage, the most common form today is pumped hydrogen, which he isn’t the biggest proponent of. One of the reasons is because hydrogen is hard to store and is very flammable. Instead, he can see us moving towards storage from electrifying the grid itself, like when people charge their cars. PJM actually did a study on this matter with 1000 Chevy Volts.

Another promising avenue in Boston’s eyes is the emergence of offshore wind: “I wasn’t sure early on if the offshore wind would get in, but the money is.” It’s been a slow regulatory process with offshore wind, but many are confident in its momentum now. One issue is getting transmission out to areas that don’t currently have it. The emergence of offshore wind reminds us of the need for energy efficiency. Boston comments, “If you like wind, you have to love storage.” This is because the wind is not always blowing, so we need a way to store the energy we create from it for a later time when it’s not available to harness.

In addition to the long-term energy panel, Mr. Boston will also be speaking on a third panel titled “Transmission Infrastructure.” Transmission generally refers to carrying energy from the point of generation to homes and businesses to power their needs. In order to best utilize money funding the clean energy transition, Boston says we need to have more transmission to move the power to the load. He explained how one of the biggest issues with transmission currently is a sort of NIMBYISM- people not wanting infrastructure placed on their property. In order to move towards more robust and long-distance transfers of energy, citizens will have to cooperate and big policy decisions will have to be made. Europe, for example, requires that transmission be built and they use high-voltage DC, something many would like the US to adapt as well. The reason is that about 17% of energy can be saved using DC systems instead of AC, which requires extra energy conversions.

Boston has a life of experience in the energy sector and a lot of valuable knowledge to help guide us to a brighter and cleaner future. The playback video of his keynote talk will be available soon. In the meantime, plan to attend the 2024 UNC Cleantech Summit on March 21 – 22.



About the Author

This article was written by Sarah Masters, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Science and minoring in Public Policy. She is currently an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern involved with the planning of the 2023 program. Connect with her on LinkedIn.