Celebrating 30 Years with Dr. Robert Koger

We are excited to congratulate Dr. Robert (Bob) Koger on his 30th anniversary at Advanced Energy! Under Dr. Koger’s leadership, Advanced Energy has gone through many positive changes, including more than doubling its staff, expanding its operations nationally and internationally, and adding major research and testing laboratories.

In honor of this big milestone, we spoke to Dr. Koger about his three decades at Advanced Energy and his experiences, memories and highlights.

When you first arrived at Advanced Energy, the site of the organization was basically all office space, but that changed a few years later. What role did the Industrial Electrotechnology Laboratory play in Advanced Energy’s services, and how have they evolved over time?

We helped launch the Industrial Electrotechnology Laboratory (IEL) in the early 1990s as a way to extend our efforts and capabilities. It was located on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus and opened doors to many new offerings, including technical assistance, technology demonstrations, workshops and publications. It primarily acted as a problem-solving center for industries, and focused on promoting electrotechnologies (such as infrared dying, powder coating and radio frequency drying) and motors. Industry members could try out the equipment and receive in-plant testing. Over the years, the IEL refined its scope, and today it is known as our electric motor and drive testing lab. Motors and drives from all over the world are shipped to us to be tested and certified for durability, safety and efficiency. Additionally, in the last two decades our industrial fieldwork has flourished. Our energy assessments and audits help industrial facilities improve energy efficiency, save money and reduce their carbon footprint.

In addition to the development of the IEL, Advanced Energy has managed a ton of influential projects and programs during your time here. The “iceberg” project in particular is one that may not be well known to current employees. This was a unique undertaking early on in your career at Advanced Energy – can you explain how it worked?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we partnered with Southern Produce Distributors, Carolina Power & Light, the N.C. Energy Division and the Electric Power Research Institute to introduce the “iceberg” project as an innovative produce-cooling system. Typically, farmers would use giant refrigerators to cool produce immediately after harvesting, but this approach added significant demand to utilities, especially during summer peak periods.

The iceberg was different because it could run year-round and help spread out load. It was developed in an 800,000-gallon underground tank, and icemakers would fill the tank with millions of pounds of ice. In the summer, the stored “coldness” was used to produce cold air to chill the vegetables. The steady amount of electricity drawn throughout the year prevented utilities from being faced with a big load all at once. In 1991, the project won a Silver Switch award from the National Food and Energy Council.

Another influential program has certainly been NC GreenPower, and I know you’re proud of what it has been able to achieve over the last 15 years. Can you talk a little about how it got started?

In the early 2000s, the N.C. Legislature and Environmental Review Commission conducted a study on the future of electric service in North Carolina and the potential for a “green” power or pricing program. They asked the N.C. Utilities Commission to consider whether a checkoff program on utility bills would be effective. The Commission requested that we take the lead on investigating which options would be best for developing a green pricing program, and we convened stakeholder meetings with representatives for consumers, electric utilities, the environmental community, technology experts, the State Energy Office and regulators. After two years of discussions, in 2003, NC GreenPower officially launched as a nonprofit subsidiary of Advanced Energy to promote renewable energy sources in North Carolina. It was the first independent, statewide, multi-utility green pricing program in the U.S.

Today, NC GreenPower seeks to improve North Carolina’s environment by supporting renewable energy, carbon offset projects and solar installations at K-12 schools. Through voluntary contributions, the organization helps make solar, wind, landfill methane, small hydro and biomass projects feasible and has supported more than 1,000 projects across North Carolina since its founding. In 2015, NC GreenPower launched its Solar Schools pilot program, an educational initiative that provides grants for the installation of small solar photovoltaic arrays at North Carolina schools. NC GreenPower Solar Schools also supplies a weather station, real-time monitoring equipment, a curriculum and educational training for teachers, making it a true hands-on solar experience for students. By the end of 2018, the program will have reached 27 schools in 22 counties, bringing solar and energy education to more than 23,000 students.

Alongside the work being carried out by NC GreenPower, Advanced Energy has had significant success supporting the solar industry in other ways. Can you talk about the company’s experience there?

Even before I arrived at Advanced Energy, we were helping promote awareness and understanding of solar power through workshops and research projects. However, our solar offerings really blossomed in the last several years, as the technology started to grow in the market more broadly. Today, we provide a mix of off-site and on-site evaluations to ensure that solar projects are installed to quality standards, provide optimal performance and can be maintained for safe and reliable operation for the life of the system. Our recent work in interconnection commissioning makes sure that independent power producer facilities that are interconnected to the utility grid comply with necessary documentation, codes and standards.

Similar to solar technology, electric vehicles have gone through varying trends in the market, with an especially strong push recently. How have Advanced Energy’s services in this market evolved?

We began researching the potential of electric transportation decades ago, long before it really started to catch on in full. Soon after I arrived, we invested in an electric van to assess its feasibility in commercial fleets. A couple of years later, we converted a Pontiac Fiero to run on batteries and took it on highway trips to help study how these vehicles could affect utility loads.

Since those early days, our transportation work – along with the market – has only grown. In the early 2000s, we managed a decade-long project examining plug-in hybrid electric school buses to evaluate operating costs, emissions, fuel economy, and other benefits and limitations. More recently, we have been partnering with electric co-ops to help them and their communities prepare for the progression of electric transportation. We also launched Plug-in NC, a statewide initiative to promote electric vehicles through education, outreach and resource development.

So do you see yourself in an electric car one day?

Definitely. I have decided that my next car will either be a plug-in hybrid or hopefully an all-electric. However, before I go with an all-electric, I would want to see a significant increase in the number of public charging stations in the country. Also, I want a small- or medium-size SUV, so that is what I am waiting for in particular. I expect it to be a plug-in hybrid with at least 50 or 60 miles on battery alone.

How about in the residential sector? Advanced Energy has made a big impact on this market, particularly in the realm of low-income housing. Can you talk about the company’s efforts?

Our low-income residential work was spurred in large part by the devastation of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which destroyed thousands of homes. We initially participated in the Build Back Better Campaign, and this ended up transitioning into our SystemVision program, launched in 2001. The mantra that has guided this program has been to “Make every home healthy, safe, comfortable, durable, energy efficient and affordable.”

We’ve been fortunate to have a great partnership with the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency (NCHFA), which has provided access to affordable housing in the state as well as financial incentives for participating builders and developers. This collaboration has resulted in the construction of more than 5,000 high-performance, energy efficient, affordable homes in North Carolina.

In addition to the support of the NCHFA, we rely on a network of nonprofit builders and countless volunteers who ensure that every home is well-built and meets our standards, as well as raters who inspect the homes throughout the process.

In another residential exploration that took place primarily in the mid-2000s, we received a federal research grant to study closed crawl spaces. Our research led to the finding that these crawl spaces, which are insulated spaces without vents to the outside, can significantly improve moisture control and energy efficiency. With the help of this research, closed crawl spaces are now the standard for LEED homes and easier to install through the North Carolina building code, and other states have made similar changes to their codes. I even closed my own crawl space after this work!

Along with your involvement in many of the projects and programs that Advanced Energy has delivered, you also have 30 years of participating in our fun (and educational!) social events. For example, we at Advanced Energy have been fortunate to have had many notable guest speakers at staff and board meetings. Does any one presentation you’ve heard stand out?

We have had a remarkable history of having outstanding speakers make presentations to our board and staff throughout my time at Advanced Energy. It is difficult to limit myself to identifying a single speaker, but a couple of years ago, we had the chairman of Net Power talk to us. He described a remarkable new way to build a natural gas generator that needed no water to operate, could be built at the equivalent cost of a regular gas generator and would be carbon-free in terms of its output. They have just completed a successful prototype of such a plant in Texas. This could be a world changer in terms of helping in our fight against global warming, as such a plant could help back up solar and wind generation until battery storage becomes more economical.

How about conferences, courses or organizations you’ve been a part of? Have any made a lasting impact on your career?

I have been involved with many professional groups during my career. However, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) meant the most to me in terms of staying current on the many issues related to energy production and usage. As a commissioner at the N.C. Utilities Commission, I served on EPRI’s Advisory Council for 10 years, and after joining Advanced Energy, I participated in various EPRI committees and was invited to continue to attend their yearly training sessions. Many of my ideas for improving Advanced Energy’s operation when I assumed its leadership came from the knowledge I gained from my association with EPRI.

Continuing with improving Advanced Energy’s operation, staff retreats have been a great opportunity to bond with employees outside the office. Can you tell us about a favorite memory from one of these gatherings?

I have enjoyed all of the yearly staff training retreats. In addition to the excellent information that we have gotten from various expert trainers that we have hired, it has been an opportunity to get to know individual employees on a more personal basis through the different educational games they lead us through. In the early years of these events, we went through a series of more “physical” teamwork challenges. I remember being dropped to the ground (accidently, I think) by my team when we were involved in some contest with other teams.

Fortunately, the holidays are usually an equally fun and less potentially harmful time at the office. What is the best white elephant gift you’ve received?

Several years ago, I got Superman pajamas that actually turned out to be my size. Unfortunately, I did not gain any extra “power,” so I gave them away at the next white elephant gift exchange that I went to. However, everyone usually has a good time laughing at these parties.

Speaking of Superman, I’m sure many in the industry would consider you to have made a superhero-level impact over the past 30 years. What do you think Advanced Energy’s impact on North Carolina has been over the decades?

I think we have had a significant and positive impact in North Carolina and actually the nation in terms of promoting energy efficiency for all types of users. We have received numerous federal grants to work on energy-related matters, done a lot in the promotion of renewables through our subsidiary, NC GreenPower, and made an impact in various areas of research and testing, such as with electric motors, electric vehicles and crawl spaces, as mentioned earlier.

To wrap us up, what would you like Advanced Energy to look like in the next 30 years?

I think Advanced Energy needs to continue to make sure its employees are well-informed, trained and educated on all of the developing and significant innovations being studied that are related to the energy industry. Of course, it is difficult to predict what breakthroughs in the field of energy will occur in the future. I know when we established our NC GreenPower subsidiary in 2003, solar photovoltaics were very expensive, and in the last 15 years, costs of solar panels have decreased by a huge amount. Will they continue to decrease? Will battery storage become affordable for all classes of customers so that more intermittent solar and wind can be made reliable on a localized hourly and daily basis? Will fuel cells become more feasible? Will we embrace electric vehicles as fully as many people expect?

Also, from a usage side, there is still much that can be done regarding energy efficiency. Given that we are all generally concerned about global warming, the more efficient we are and the more carbon-free (and hopefully cost-effective) generation we embrace, the better. I think that Advanced Energy can play a significant role in these areas over the next 30 years. I also expect to see a continuation of Advanced Energy being awarded federal research grants given our reputation for past work. In regard to staff size, I have seen our staff more than double during the last 30 years, and I believe it will double again in the next 30 years.

The energy industry has certainly changed over the last three decades, but Dr. Koger has been there to guide Advanced Energy through every new development, technology and challenge that has surfaced. Please join us in congratulating him on this 30-year achievement!