Although PJM headquarters is just minutes from Steven & Lee’s Valley Forge office, it took a recent trip to Washington, DC, for me to catch up with its President and CEO, Terry Boston. PJM manages the largest power grid in North America and the largest electricity market in the world. It is a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity, operates a competitive wholesale electricity market and manages the high-voltage electricity grid to ensure reliability for more than 58 million people. While attending PJM’s conference, Grid 20/20: Focus on Markets, Terry made time to discuss some key issues with me.

Evers: I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me. This is a real privilege. Terry, what is the most exciting thing about your job?

Boston: I guess dealing with all of the customers that we have. We’re up to 756 customers now and being able to have innovative markets that they can play in is probably the most exciting part. I love the technology. I’m a geek at heart. At the end of the day, the customer service function is probably the most fun part.

Evers: What keeps you up at night?

Boston: Cyber security. It has changed in the last three to four years. It’s no longer just a matter of trying to keep kids out of the system. Making sure we have security built in not bolted on to all of our networks and systems is probably the most important part of what we do. You have to realize this is a new world we’re in. We have to be very diligent, and we need resilience. Resilience is the ability to recover after a breach or intrusion.

Evers: I’m glad to hear you say that because after today’s session, I sat there thinking about distributed generation and I wondered whether or not cyber security a paradox. Is it even real? Can we ever really have cyber security? So I love the focus on the resiliency part.

Boston: That’s interesting. I was pleased to read a report that went to the President last year that basically came to the conclusion that you can’t protect against everything. The President had an interesting quote, and it goes something like this: “We have to accept the world as it is.” There will be hurricanes, there will be snowstorms like the October snowstorm, and we have to be realistic. Resiliency is about how well you recover after that big event, like Hurricane Irene or a cyber-attack.

Evers: That is a perfect transition into my next question. I heard you talk about some of extreme conditions in the past year: an earthquake, very hot days or the early snowstorm that I call the “October surprise.” As a result of the snowstorm that hit the Northeast, some top executives came under fire and one even resigned. I thought, “Is this fair? What if people could see what linemen have to go through to restore service? Often the conditions are not great.” What ideas or suggestions do you have that can help the public have realistic expectations for reliability?

Boston: First of all, there is the weather roulette wheel. You never know what you’re going to have thrown at you in terms of extreme weather. This year has been extreme as I mentioned in the meeting here today. We had an ice storm in February, tornadoes in mid-April, the hottest day of record on July 22 of this year, Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and then an “October surprise” as you call it. It was an unusual snowstorm. A combination of the leaves still on the trees, very wet snow and high winds. Electric distribution is going to be affected. The one thing that I’ve always done is to show the linemen out there working. Show what they have to go through to make a storm restoration work. You have to get good information out. Our staff learned from Texas where they had some problems in February in an extreme cold spell. The social media got the word out to lots of people. When they had rotating brownouts, they used social media to get to people, not just television.

Evers: You know I recently took a trip to Kenya this summer with my church. We were in remote villages six hours outside of Kenya where there is no infrastructure.

Boston: You were thankful for any grid.

Evers: Exactly. Reflecting on it caused me to think about the snowstorm and how we complain, how we’re a victim of our own really good reliability. Have we created the expectation of perfect service?

Boston: Generally speaking, worldwide you don’t have five nines — 99.999% reliable service on most of the transmission network.  We are very fortunate that we do have that here in this country. We have a digital economy, though, that runs on electricity. It is the fuel of the digital economy and it just shows the importance of what we have to do every day. And while the innovation summit we’re at here is about markets, it’s also very much about how to improve reliability. Electricity is the lifeblood of our economy and the lifelines to our homes.

Evers: Absolutely.

Boston: And it’s not fun when the power’s off.

Evers: Right. And you really can’t do anything without electricity. You need electricity just to innovate and create new products like the iPhone. 

So here is my last question. What does the man responsible for the largest power grid in the U.S. do for fun? How do you take vacation with such heavy responsibility?

Boston: We have three kids. Two on the West Coast and one on the far West Coast in Hawaii, and we travel with them. We love to go boating and water skiing. Unfortunately, the kids are so far away now and busy that we have them one at a time. But recently we went hiking in Hawaii with our son, and it was a good trip. Our daughter, Rachel, is an actress. We are very tightly tied to her career. We go to her shows. She’s coming to visit in December. She just won an award, the Emergent Talent Award in the New York Film Festival. Celebrating with her is another thing that we do for fun.

Evers: Wonderful.

Boston: I have a world class woodworking shop. I can’t think of a single tool that I do not own.

Evers: You make your own furniture and stuff like that?

Boston: I’ve made a lot of walnut furniture from kids’ cradles to grandfather clocks to some of the furniture in our house. As a matter of fact, I built a passive solar home, and I did all of the finished crown molding. The house has 6,000 square feet, and it uses about the economic equivalent of a cappuccino from Starbucks’ in terms of energy. So about less than $5.00 of electricity and energy a day. I built it in 1988, but it is designed-built to energy standards that people would be very pleased with today.

Evers: Terry, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.