In recognition of Women’s History Month, AEP Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Barton talked about her rise to leadership and the future energy workforce.
Lisa Barton’s journey in energy hasn’t been without its barriers.
For starters, when she attended engineering school, the ratio of men to women was 10 to 1. And she has often been the only woman in the room, on the team, or in the department.
“I recall taking a course at MIT, and I could not even find a women’s restroom,” she said. “Little did I know that in the energy field, the ratio would be much higher.”
Long before she ascended to leadership positions within American Electric Power (AEP), Barton had mentors to whom she looked for guidance.
Her interest in math and science led her to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, where she was attracted to electrical power engineering by one professor who fueled her passion for the industry and for leadership.
“Dr. Harit Majmudar…even to this day when I say his name, I have to take a deep breath,” Barton said.
She said Dr. Majmudar cared about his students on a very personal level, taking them out for pizza and cooking for them at his home.
“[He] would constantly tell us when we tried to pick up the bill that we could come back and take him out when we launched our own careers,” Barton remembered. “He taught us the gift and power of paying it forward. He loved teaching, loved the power industry and the men and women who dedicated their lives to keeping the lights on so others could reach their potential.”
Barton said she has carried that mindset of “paying it forward” with her through her career.
“I remember fondly the male and female leaders who mentored me along my professional journey,” she said. “It’s essential to keep that going. To me, making a positive difference in the lives of others is how you should measure your life, your career and your contributions.”
Barton stressed the importance of seeing the energy industry from as many different perspectives as possible.
The Connecticut native started her career with Northeastern Utilities (NU), now Eversource, working in a little of everything: engineering, regulatory, legal, compliance, marketing and customer service. She earned a law degree along the way, and represented water and gas utilities and working in corporate and trademark law.
Her second stint with NU allowed her to start the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) compliance program, a good fit for both her engineering and legal backgrounds. From there she accepted a role at AEP, moved to Ohio and invested time and attention on growing AEP’s transmission opportunities and leadership.
Barton continued to broaden her responsibilities at AEP before being named executive vice president and COO. She leads the day-to-day activities of all AEP utilities, as well as the operations of the Generation and Transmission business units, and the Procurement, Supply Chain and Fleet Operations organization.
When asked about the biggest accomplishment of her career, she spoke about AEP bouncing back from what had been an initial defeat. AEP had launched its $4.5 billion Wind Catcher project, a combination of a long transmission line and 2 GW in renewable generation located in Oklahoma’s panhandle.
After years of work, the company in 2018 pulled the plug on what would have been the biggest-ever U.S. wind farm. The project had received regulatory approval from three of the four states needed. But Texas regulators rejected the project because it didn’t offer enough benefits for ratepayers.
“Despite the setback,” Barton said, “it was literally the next week that the team dusted themselves off and got back to work on our North Central Energy Facilities.”
AEP scaled down its effort to what is now known as the North Central Wind Facilities. The three wind farms offer 1,485 MW of generating capacity and are powered by 531 General Electric (GE) turbines.
In March, Invenergy and GE Renewable Energy completed the Traverse Energy Center, the largest and last of the three wind projects that constituted AEP’s reconstituted effort to build large-scale wind. The 998 MW Traverse project is considered the largest wind farm constructed in a single phase in North America.
“After even more work and regulatory proceedings, the project was approved,” said Barton. “I was struck by the commitment of the team.”
More than ever, Barton said the energy industry needs to be thoughtful and intentional in its long-term planning. While capacity needs in power generation are especially changing, she said she doesn’t think about the industry’s assets when looking toward the future; Barton, instead, thinks more about its people.
“This industry is built on stewardship,” she said. That makes it an attractive industry for younger people “who want to ensure that what they are doing provides value and has meaning,” As a result, “we need to focus on telling that story and ensuring that people can connect those dots.”
Barton said that the energy industry’s transformation marks the beginning of a new journey. “We need a broad range of talent, diversity of skills, people and ideas to make it all happen,” she said. And building trust among all stakeholders will be even more important in the future than it has been in the past.
“If you want to change the world,” Barton said, “this is industry to do it!”
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