Rachel Wilkins-Thurman ’08

Guiding The Grid

June 24, 2019
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Like so many of WPI’s best and brightest, Rachel Wilkins-Thurman was an inquisitive child who used her own two hands to investigate the world around her.

“I was always taking apart phones, radios, and electronics, just to see what goes on inside,” she recalls. “I always had people tell me, ‘You ask so many questions!’” It wasn’t always a compliment. And her experiments weren’t always appreciated. “When I was small I was able to take things apart, but I couldn’t always put ‘em back together,” she confesses, with a hearty laugh.

She wasn’t one to sit back and wait for a fairy godmother to grant her wishes. When her mother locked up the household candy supply in a back room, Rachel got handy with her father’s tools. “I didn’t have the key, but I was able to unscrew the latch, and put everything back without anyone noticing, because the lock wasn’t disturbed!” To this day, the memory amuses her.

When her parents wouldn’t buy her Barbie’s Dreamhouse, she built one herself. Cutting and folding cardboard, she constructed an elaborate abode for her dolls and furnished it with handcrafted couches and chairs. “On top of the house, I wanted a swimming pool. So I cut a hole in the roof to fit a bowl inside, and I filled it with water.” Again, her mother did not appreciate her ingenuity. “She was like—‘What is this mess?’ And she took it away. But that creativity part of me has always been there.”

Today Wilkins-Thurman applies that can-do mindset to the complexities of the 72,000-square-mile power grid that serves customers in New England. At any given moment, as we flip a light switch or power up our computers, a portion of that grid infrastructure is likely to be down for routine maintenance or repair. Her mission is to make sure the power is there when we demand it, and that we remain blissfully unaware of the challenges that had to be overcome to get it to us.

Minding The Grid

A 2009 graduate of WPI’s master’s program in Power Systems Management, she has been with ISO New England for over a decade. (ISO is shorthand for independent system operators, who serve as neutral managers of a region’s pooled electricity supply. New England’s power grid was formed in the wake of the 1965 Northeast Blackout.)

The not-for-profit company based in Holyoke, Mass., dubs itself “Guardian of the Grid.” It doesn’t make or sell electricity, but compares its function to an air traffic controller, keeping power flowing reliably through 9,000 miles of transmission lines across six states. In that analogy, Rachel would be one charged with scheduling time off for the pilots without leaving any passengers stranded.

With a GM mechanic father, and a mother who read meters for First-Energy, it might seem like the path to engineering and a career in the power industry would be obvious.

It wasn’t.

“Back then, I didn’t know anything about engineering,” she says. “Nobody talked to me about it, or told me it was even possible.” Her earliest dream was to be a singer, in the Gospel tradition of The Clark Sisters. She performed in a trio with her sisters, Willette and Jessica, as The Wilkins Sisters. “I wrote most of the songs we sang,” she recalls. “They helped with the arrangements.”

She also loved being at her father’s side as he rebuilt cars in the backyard, or did household repairs. “He’d be putting in a new transmission, or replacing a faucet,” she says, “and I’d be passing him tools. Of us three sisters, I was the one who was always out there with Dad.”

Her vocal talents took her to a performing arts program in high school, but that ended abruptly when her parents moved after her freshman year. In her new school, she was channeled into the Computer and Electronic Technology vocational track. She wanted to study mechanical engineering, but despite her years of greasy-handed assistance, her father didn’t think ME was a suitable field for a girl. Her mother thought computers might be a good outlet for her daughter’s curiosity and creativity.

It was her mother’s work in the energy industry that raised an awareness in Rachel of what it took to keep the lights on, and what engineers did to make it happen. By the end of high school she was able to articulate a new life goal, spelled out beneath her yearbook picture: “… to be a successful electrical engineer.”

In high school, she’d been one of a handful of girls in the computer track. In college, it didn’t get much better. At the University of Akron she became active in the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which she served as president for a few years. A co-op put her inside the transmission control center of FirstEnergy. An NSBE career fair led her to the management trainee program of NSTAR Electric in Boston. Her role there as supervisor of electric operations called for a master’s degree. Fortunately, WPI had just launched a joint Power Management graduate program with NSTAR.

“We were in the process of putting in a new energy system at NSTAR,” she recalls. “My previous work with FirstEnergy gave me the background, and my WPI classes in power systems management helped me see how it all pulled together. It was awesome to understand the theory behind all that. Most colleges don’t offer those concentrated classes.”

At NSTAR she served as a liaison on many fronts, including compliance work with ISO New England. That relationship led to a job as senior outage coordinator at ISO New England; she rose to the position of lead outage coordinator in 2016.

Stern But Sweet

On a midwinter Monday morning in February, just back from a week of site visits, Wilkins-Thurman graciously makes time in her busy schedule to sit down for an unhurried interview with WPI Journal. With one eye on an approaching snowstorm, she’s already working out a backup plan for the Journal’s photoshoot later in the week. That kind of front-end planning is second nature to her. She’s not on call for storm duty—she put in her time on the front lines of emergency management in her previous positions with NSTAR and FirstEnergy.

In her current position, she’s looking ahead—sometimes as much as two years—to find the best way for generator and transmission line owners to accomplish necessary maintenance and repairs, as well as new installations, without compromising the reliability of the system.

Thousands of outage requests pour into her work group every year. Using a schematic model of the entire regional grid, she can run computer simulations and analyze the effects of taking specified generators or transmission lines out of service at any given time. She compares it to a checkerboard, where you’re always thinking several moves ahead, looking in all directions for potential pitfalls, and analyzing potential outcomes.

In addition to balancing seasonal demands (spring and fall are favorable for outages; winter and summer are prime heating and air-conditioning seasons in New England; and special days like Thanksgiving or Super Bowl Sunday are off the charts), she factors in an adequate operating capacity margin to cover unexpected events. ISO’s operating procedure is to prepare for the worst-case scenario—two times over. “Our objective is to ensure that we can always cover for the planned situation, as well as the unplanned,” she explains. “Cold snaps come, there’s always the risk of a hurricane or a heatwave—or an unplanned outage of another line. Before we allow an outage request, we first have to make sure we we’ll be able to withstand two major contingencies, without overloading the lines that remain in service.”

And then there’s “congestion cost,” which results when conditions on a transmission system don’t allow for the most economic dispatch of electric energy to serve the consumer load. “This is important,” Wilkins-Thurman says, “because this cost could ultimately be passed on to the rate payer, which includes me and you as consumers. We try to stagger things, the best we can, with the goal of balancing capacity and reliability, and reducing or eliminating congestion cost.”

It’s a complex balance, and a powerful role. “I have a right—and a responsibility—to approve or deny an outage request.” That’s where diplomacy comes in. “Even though ISO has final authority—sometimes it comes down to being able to say the right thing to get others to do the right thing.” Sometimes it’s possible for Wilkins-Thurman to guide companies to a creative workaround. “We’ll ask questions and try to come up with ways to rope an unreasonable request back in.” At times, a little time-shifting— moving the outage back or forward a day or two, breaking it into multiple segments, or piggybacking it onto some other scheduled maintenance— does the trick. Wilkins- Thurman might push for crews to work longer shifts to shorten the duration of an outage, or explore whether portions of the work can be done “live line” (without taking the line out of service).

There’s a lot to consider—and Wilkins-Thurman knows it inside out, because she’s been in their shoes. “Because of my work at FirstEnergy and NSTAR, I have an understanding of how things work at the local control center level. I understand what they go through, because I’ve been through it. That makes a distinct difference.

“The personal relationships are key,” she elaborates. “You have to listen and understand where’re they’re coming from. You have to be friendly—and fair. If I have to say no—I want them to know it’s nothing personal, it’s just a business decision to maintain reliability. You have to have compassion. Because at the end of the day, they’re just trying to do their jobs—and we’re just trying to do ours.”

To steer all parties toward a common goal, “You have to be really assertive,” she says. “You have to be able to be stern, but [she lightens her voice] sweet.” She follows that pronouncement with a hearty laugh. “There are only two women in our group—and I’m one of them. It’s something we experienced starting in college. It’s tough to be a woman and a minority in this particular field. But it’s been a great experience.”

Although her work is sometimes stressful, she’s quick to point out the joys of her job.

“It’s pretty gratifying to see something come to fruition—for example, when a new line goes into service—and know that I was part of that, I worked with them to make it happen.” She thinks a moment then adds, “No blackouts going on—that’s pretty gratifying.”

In her decade at ISO New England, Wilkins-Thurman has helped bring about longer lead times on outage requests and greater automation of the reporting process. Lead analyst Michael Zeoli, who worked with her on automating the reporting process, says he’s enthusiastic about any opportunity to collaborate with her, calling her “fully engaged” and “meticulous when it comes to details.”

“Because of the numerous locations from which data had to be retrieved, and the magnitude of data, the manual creation of these reports was very time-consuming,”​ Zeoli says. The project also called for some unique coding, including accommodating for the number of days in certain weeks that fall in two different months. “Throughout the development process Rachel was willing and able to fully test any new code no matter how many other things she had on her plate at that particular time. The final product is a piece of software that has reduced the completion time of the report—from days to less than an hour—with complete accuracy.” He notes that there have been discussions about publishing daily reports, rather than monthly.

During the February school vacation, Wilkins-Thurman brought her daughter to WPI for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. “Shayna had a blast playing with robots and creating her own balloon rocket,” she says. “I do see the characteristics of an engineer in her. She has a memory like an elephant, and I can always see those wheels turning. Her dad, a computer engineer, plans to teach her some basic programming to see what she thinks of that. I can see her going into STEM, but she’s only 8. I’m not trying to push my agenda.”

Harking back to her own childhood, she says, “The earlier they get that exposure, the better. Exposure and environment is the biggest reason why I’m where I am today.”