Keeping pace with America's changing power grid

It’s an exciting time to be in the business of solving energy-supply problems, John Henning says.

Exciting, according to Olsson’s energy market leader, not because it’s easy work, but rather the opposite. A global spike in energy consumption, an aging U.S. power grid, and a series of sustainable energy options that introduce new complications keep experts like John and his Olsson colleagues in demand.

“Yes, there are hurdles to overcome, but as engineers, that’s when we thrive and that’s what we enjoy – finding solutions,” John says. “And we’ve been finding solutions at Olsson for years.

We have a large, experienced group with the expertise to innovate and partner with energy clients, whether it be helping them achieve sustainability, increase power generation, or distribute energy.”

In 2024, many of Olsson’s client discussions center on accomplishing decarbonization without raising costs or compromising reliability and resiliency.

That issue, and topics such as intermittent renewable power sources like wind and solar, newer power generation technologies, and the efficiencies of district power were front and center during a recent conversation with Olsson’s energy leader:

What would you like the outside world to know about Olsson’s energy market?

I think the big thing is that we’ve been working with energy for a long time, and we’re only going to continue to build upon the great work our teams have done with utilities and keep developing things like substations, distribution lines, and transmission lines to help grow communities.

On top of that, we’ve been building our renewable portfolio with things like wind, solar, and battery storage for more than 10 years, and we’re going to continue growing those areas, bring on newer technologies like hydrogen, and expand our design services, whether that be civil or distribution work for renewable energy clients or industrial clients.

We’ve seen a rise in the number of district energy clients at Olsson. The efficiency of heating and cooling multiple facilities or businesses with one system has to be inviting for clients.

We’ve done a lot of district energy type work – distributed-energy projects or thermal heating and cooling – in Nebraska. And a lot of Olsson initiatives in the healthcare and higher education spaces show a desire for more district type solutions.

We can share our expertise with clients in those fields and introduce them to district energy clients and wind up helping multiple clients at the same time.

What are the key challenges our nation faces in the energy space?

Our grid is changing so much, and a lot of utilities and consumers have goals to achieve decarbonization. Well, how do we do that and ensure grid reliability and resiliency while also keeping costs down?

That’s a huge question.

Another big question for everyone in this profession is trying to figure out how to put intermittent power sources like wind and solar onto the grid and, again, do it without compromising reliability and resiliency. And then ultimately, there’s pushback to adding new transmission lines. But most renewable projects will be located in remote areas, and we’ve got to be able to tie them into the grid somehow.

So, how do we leverage our local knowledge and relationships to permit and construct transmission lines on a timeline that will meet our power needs?

Given these challenges, if someone were to ask you for a reason for optimism, what would you tell them?

Within the industry itself the appetite for decarbonization is strong, so there's a lot of support at local and federal levels to push these kinds of projects through. A lot of tax incentives have been passed that are spurring innovation, and there’s been an easing of the permitting regulations that held these advancements back.

But the most optimistic part is that we have a lot of talented individuals who are leveraging their experience to find innovative solutions for our clients – and for our country as a whole.

What makes Olsson uniquely qualified to help clients?

We have a lot of different energy service lines, and our expertise is well distributed across our geographic footprint. That enables a lot of diversity of thought – both from a standpoint of skill sets and geography – that we can share with one another and deliver to our clients.

It means you might have mechanical and electrical engineers in the Midwest sharing ideas with civil engineers in the Southwest, and ideas from those conversations that yield solutions in one part of the country can be applied elsewhere. You can really cultivate ideas across different services when you work that way.

What would you like future Olsson employees or clients to know about you as Energy market leader?

I really enjoy calling upon my relationships within Olsson and within the industry to put the best and brightest people at the forefront of projects and find solutions for our clients. I'm adept at connecting the right people.

And I've always focused on building relationships, being genuine, and getting to know people.

And in doing that, I've created friendships with a lot of the clients that I’ve worked with and a lot of the people that I’ve collaborated with as suppliers, subconsultants, or contractors. Ultimately, I want to leverage Olsson’s internal and external network to help find solutions for our clients. I want to help them succeed.

John Henning
Market Leader
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