How do we keep the lights on?
That question weighs heavily on the minds of those who keep the nation’s electrical grid operational. It’s also been a through-line in the career of Steve Hauser, B.S. engineering physics ’76.
“It’s becoming more difficult,” said Hauser, CEO of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, one of the oldest and largest electric energy trade associations in the world.
“We’re contending with bigger impacts from storms and wildfires, expanding political and consumer demand for cleaner technologies, and mounting costs of replacing or upgrading aging infrastructure, and rapid increase in electrification, mostly from cars” he said.
Hauser was in charge of energy programs at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for more than a decade before founding the GridWise Alliance in 2003, an industrywide association dedicated to transforming the energy system.
“Back in the late 1990s, the internet was starting to emerge, and we were starting to see the ability to communicate and to network grid operations in a much simpler, more cost-effective way,” Hauser said. “Within a year or so, we had a number of utilities and companies like IBM and GE on board. We saw an opportunity to change the way electricity is delivered and managed, using technology developed for the internet.”
Hauser had established himself as an industry thought leader by the early 2000s, testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on multiple occasions. So, when President Barack Obama sought to include energy infrastructure in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, his administration tapped Hauser for expertise. Ultimately, more than $10 billion was allocated to modernize the grid and help ensure reliable electricity delivery, largely through smart grid projects.
“That was the wakeup call for the industry,” Hauser said.
Hauser didn’t always plan to go into engineering. He says he didn’t even know what an engineer was when he first came to Oregon State. But he arrived at his orientation on crutches, still wearing a full-leg cast from a bad motorcycle accident six months earlier.
“The closest program to walk to was engineering physics,” Hauser said. “And I really liked physics. So, the advisor there talked me into signing up. It was hard. I took graduate-level physics and chemistry, mechanical engineering, and other challenging courses. I’m glad I did, because when I graduated I had a lot of flexibility in what I could do.”
These days, Hauser has his hands full leading AEIC. Founded by Thomas Edison in 1885, the association has more than 185 participating electric utilities across the United States and Canada. Hauser has overseen a major rebranding effort to raise the organization’s public profile.
He also oversees 13 AEIC committees, some dating back nearly a century, each of which deals with a different aspect of power plant or grid operations. As CEO, Hauser sees AEIC as vital to helping utility operators navigate the new challenges they face.
“It’s easy to run the electricity system when everything is normal,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s becoming less and less the case.”