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Power Driver

John Prescott does for a living what most of us only worry about in our spare time: he is trying to figure out how our country can create more energy.

The financial crisis has taken center stage in 2009, but Prescott warns challenging times are ahead for meeting energy needs and power is getting more expensive to produce. He pleads with people to educate themselves and get involved with energy-making decisions.

“We’re moving into a higher risk phase of the energy crisis and the stakes could not be higher,” Prescott said. “Even after the higher gasoline prices that we experienced in 2008, we’re still not taking energy strategy serious enough.”

Prescott, a Blackfoot-area native and 1981 graduate of Idaho State University’s College of Engineering, is currently the president and chief executive officer for PNGC Power based in Portland, Ore. He has 27 years of experience in the electric utility industry.

PNGC is a cooperatively owned power service business providing power supply and other management services to 16 cooperative member-owner utilities serving customers in seven western states, including Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Its member-owners, including six co-ops in Idaho, have about $816 million in assets.

Historically, PNGC has largely delivered electricity to its members through long-term contracts with the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which derives much of its power from hydroelectric projects. Beginning in 2012, however, its customers must provide their own energy sources, or utilize BPA’s marginal resources to meet additional demand because the BPA is tapped out.

“PNGC will be building its own portfolio of power generation plants to meet this demand,” Prescott said. “We’re looking at everything, from new technologies like wave power... to more traditional power generating plants.”

Prescott is a proponent of producing more power through hydroelectricity, but acknowledges there is resistance to building more dams in the West and Northwest.

“The Department of Energy doesn’t consider hydropower a renewable resource, but I do,” Prescott said. “It is clean, reliable and has a low carbon output. I think hydro is the cleanest, best and most renewable energy resource there is. Because of the environmental landscape, it may be difficult to expand, but we are still exploring options there.”

The PNGC executive thinks natural gas-powered plants may be a good alternative for this region, because of the relatively plentiful supply and the fact it produces less carbon and is cleaner than coal.

“Wind and solar power are important components to help meet future power demands,” Prescott said, but he believes many people have some fundamental misconceptions regarding those two sources of power.

“Wind and solar won’t solve the energy crisis because they are intermittent resources,” Prescott said. “You can’t guarantee wind will be blowing when you need it, and when it is blowing you might not need that power. Wind and solar power both need to be backed up by natural gas or combustion turbines, or some other dispatchable resource. We have to be realists. Lots of advertising these days seems to have wind turbines in the background, but you can’t replace traditional power plants with wind.”

Another alternate energy source that can supplement traditional power plants is methane-power plants using landfill gas. PNGC Power provides operations and management expertise at the Coffin Butte Resource Project, located north of Corvallis, Ore. The project generates clean renewable power from landfill gas, a natural by-product of the organic matter in the neighboring regional landfill, Valley Landfills, Inc. The Coffin Butte Resource Project, which began operation in 1995, produces enough electricity to power about 4,000 average-size homes.

There is one more major energy source Prescott said needs to be given greater consideration: nuclear.

“I really think, going into the future with the growing concern about global warming, we have to be looking at nuclear,” Prescott said. “It needs to be part of the mix.”

These are some of the strategies Prescott is pursuing as CEO of PNGC. His advice to the rest of us for addressing our mutual energy needs is:

  • realize the sense of urgency regarding the crisis and get involved;
  • try to develop a realistic national energy strategy;
  • develop domestic resources;
  • don’t rule out anything; and
  • focus on energy efficiency.

Idaho State University, with its focus on energy research, partnership in the new Center for Advanced Energy Studies and academic and technical programs related to energy-producing professions, will help the region find answers to the energy challenges we face. Prescott’s advice could help focus those at ISU and elsewhere who are looking for the answers to those challenges.

The Power Behind the Driver

A strange thing happened while Blackfoot native John Prescott was on his way to putting out fires: he became president and CEO of PNGC Power, based in Portland, Ore.

After graduating from high school in the 1970s, Prescott had two main goals: become a pilot and a firefighter. He fulfilled both goals soon after high school, while holding a job with the Pocatello Fire Department for six years.

While at the PFD, his supervisor encouraged Prescott to pursue a university education to advance his career. Prescott did, arranging his shifts so that he could take classes. He entered Idaho State’s engineering program because it was the closest thing ISU offered to fire science, something that might help him eventually become a fire chief. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in general engineering from ISU in 1981.

That’s when his career path changed.

“It’s funny. I went to college to become a fire chief, but pursuing an education presented a lot of opportunities for me,” he said.

Engineers were in high demand in the 1980s, so Prescott took a job for a year as a civil engineer at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. But he wanted to return to Idaho and landed a job with Idaho Power, where he worked for 23 years in various positions, his last as vice president of power supply. He then worked at Seattle City Light, one of the largest municipal electric systems in the nation, before being hired at PNGC and eventually becoming its leader.

Prescott credits education as the key to his success. When asked what advice he’d offer to current ISU students, Prescott said, “First and foremost, get the most education you can. Education will open more doors than you can ever imagine. After that, be open to everything and all the opportunities that are out there, pay attention to what’s going on in the world and network.”

“And,” he quipped, “Read ‘The Economist.’”

Prescott certainly followed his own advice. While working at Idaho Power he went on to earn a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Idaho, and completed the executive Master of Business Administration program at Harvard Business School. Prescott is a registered professional engineer in eight Western states, something not many engineers can boast. His education and career have taken him throughout the United States and all over the world, working in countries from Iceland to Asia.

He still has fond memories and connections to Idaho State University. For one, his wife of a little over a year, Patti Megason, is a 1982 alumna of Idaho State with a degree in nursing. She is still practicing. His mother and brother also are Idaho State alumni.

Prescott is satisfied with the education he received at ISU.

“The absolutely neat thing about the degree I received from Idaho State was that it was a general degree in engineering, which gave me a background in everything from concrete design to mechanical analysis,” Prescott said. “The ISU program also had a fair emphasis on the economic side of things, which is also very important.”

And he noted the teacher-student ratio was very small, particularly in upper level classes, a characteristic still true of the program.

“Go Bengals,” Prescott said.

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine