Northwest Q & A: Robert D. Kahn

Robert Kahn has served as executive director for the Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition since its formation in 2002. He began his career working for the late architect and philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller, and has worked with independent power producers since the industry’s earliest days in California.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Kahn helped permit thermal and renewable power plants throughout the West. In the 1990s he served as a special assistant to the chair of the Comprehensive Review of the Northwest Energy System and helped found the Renewable Northwest Project. Over the last 10 years, Kahn has managed all aspects of NIPPC’s advocacy and operations. The coalition has grown from a fledgling start-up into a forceful advocate for independent power generators, regardless of technology.

Q. What was it like working for R. Buckminster Fuller?
I consider him an inspiration and mentor. He’s been described as the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century. He was also a true gentleman in the classic sense of the term. The aspect of his thinking that has resonated with me throughout my career was his belief in the role of technology to effect social change.

Q. How does that ethos translate into what you do today?
Looking backward, it makes total sense when you consider what I do today, but I didn’t plan my career. My dissertation at the School of Education at the University of Massachussetts/Amherst was based on a community education project that I ran with National Science Foundation funding in the late 1970s. Our task was to inform citizens in three adjacent rural counties in three New England states about how to use local wood resources for energy on a sustainable basis.

Q. What role do you see for independent power producers in the Northwest, and how should this inform the Council’s Seventh Power Plan?
I would ask staff and Council members to keep three things in mind:

  • There is a difference between spending your own money and someone else’s. It takes time to develop and build a power plant, and a lot can happen between the time you start and when a project is completed. Risk is always part of the equation. An IPP developer assumes those risks instead of the ratepayers.
  • With the accelerated pace of change and unpredictability in our industry, it’s advisable to “rent” as much as it is to “own” resources. Both the utility and the ratepayer benefit from renting a power plant through a power purchase agreement with an IPP rather than the utility owning it. This kind of agreement is a hedge against unforeseen changes, including technological obsolescence, outages, and changes in environmental policies, to name only a few.
  • The third value IPPs bring to the system is innovation. Combined-cycle generation, solar, wind, all these technologies were commercialized by independent power producers. We add value by being the experienced risk takers in the sector.

Q. Is this a challenging time to be an independent power producer?
It’s always been challenging. Since 1978, when PURPA was enacted, it’s been a challenging time. Competitive sources of power production can threaten incumbent utilities. Investor-owned utilities have different approaches for how they deal with IPPs. Utility regulators will confirm that by competing with incumbent utilities our industry helps keep prices down. But even the most optimistic IPPs won’t remain in inhospitable territory indefinitely. The Northwest is trending toward inhospitable.

Q. Where do you see the power industry headed? Do you have a personal vision of what to expect?
At the moment, changes in technology are beginning to drive the power sector, and I think we’ll see increasing action from the customer side of the substation. We’ll see more distributed generation, whether it’s solar, battery storage, micro turbines, and other cutting-edge technology installed by customers. What’s happening out there is an expression of All-American self-reliance that will challenge utilities and many IPPs. But independent power producers nimbly respond to change in a way that utilities can’t, since innovation is in our DNA. I expect IPPs to figure out how to serve consumers reliably, cleanly, and cost-effectively, in whatever way they prefer to be served.