It's been nearly a year since Bethany Schunn took her seat behind the big desk at Cardinal Power Plant in east-central Ohio, and the novelty of being the first female plant manager in its half-century history has pretty much worn off.
That's fine with Schunn, who oversees 300-plus employees at the three-unit, 1,800-MW coal-fired power plant across the Ohio River from West Virginia's north- jutting spike. There was plenty of interest a year ago in her role-reversing promotion, she recalls, with one TV reporter summing up her story with the line, "They have a woman in charge."
Schunn understands that fascination, but she's also glad the story has moved on.
"It's flattering, but you don't want that to be the only thing people talk about," she says. "You come here to do a job, and you want others to think about the credentials more than any agenda."
But she's also been flattered by the invitations to speak before women's engineering and science groups. Those talks, she says, are an opportunity to show young women that they can find promising careers in the utility industry. "I would like to encourage women to be in leadership positions. That's something I'm proud of, but I don't want it to be the only thing that causes all the stories."
After all, she has plenty of other stories to tell at Cardinal.
For one, there was the challenging, unusual, and historic transfer of operational responsibility from an investor-owned utility to a G&T.
Buckeye Power, the G&T based in Columbus, Ohio, owns two of Cardinal's three 600-MW units. American Electric Power, an 11-state utility also headquartered in Columbus, owns the other unit and had operated the entire plant since it opened in the late 1960s. A year ago, the co-op took over those operating responsibilities through Cardinal Operating Company, which falls under the Buckeye Power umbrella. And Schunn sits at the top of that company's organizational chart.
A chemist with a master's degree in business administration, Schunn joined American Electric Power in 2005. She arrived at Cardinal in 2017 as transition manager, organizing the shift in control that would take place in March 2018, and she took over as plant manager when Chuck George retired a couple of months later.
"March 1, that was our transition date," Schunn says. "Since 2017, we had multiple transitional duties, but after March 1, we still had hurdles to clear, transition-wise. It's basically like becoming a whole new company, and you have to do things different from how you did them before."
Overnight, Cardinal's employees began working for an electric cooperative instead of a for-profit utility company. Schunn herself has clearly made that shift smoothly. In last year's interviews with the TV reporters, she was already talking about serving the members, not the customers.
"We do have to change our mindsets in some ways," she says. "It's not an investor-owned utility anymore. I have to get people on board with that, and that's what I have to lay out for the employees."
The power plant itself, she adds, also has a good-news story to tell about its role in the environment—and in people's lives.
Cardinal "is now one of the cleanest power plants of its kind in the world," the G&T proudly points out. More than $1 billion has gone into emission controls at the plant; its scrubbers, for example, remove 98 percent of the acid rainmakers from its flue gases.
The plant burns Ohio and West Virginia coal, barged in on the Ohio River to the 3,100-acre complex, where it's pulverized and burned as cleanly as possible to serve about 1 million Ohioans. Early in her tenure as plant manager, she invited the neighbors in for a look.
"We have spent a large sum and continue to spend on environmental upgrades," she told the Herald-Star newspaper in nearby Steubenville. "We invite anyone to come to the facility, and we can show them how we protect the environment, not just the air and the atmosphere. We also have very stringent regulations on the river."
She hasn't gotten a lot of takers on that offer, she says. But Cardinal does play host every fall to about 500 co-op members, employees, and trustees who come from all over the state to check on their investment in the plant, learn about cooperatives, and see where their power comes from.
Bob Hoelle, a longtime trustee at Butler Rural Electric Cooperative in Oxford, came clear across the state for last year's Cardinal tours.
"It was an eight-hour [round-trip] drive for an hour tour or so," he told Changing Currents, the member newsletter published by
Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association and Buckeye Power's sister organization. "But I wanted to see it in operation. There was a billion dollars spent on this, and I am a cooperative member. I have been a trustee since 2000. Local members ask me questions, and I can let them know upfront what I have actually seen. This plant, for being coal-fired, you wouldn't know it if you didn't see the piles of coal."
That reaction doesn't surprise Schunn.
"That's one of our core values: to be as environmentally responsible as possible," she says. "We do have challenges, but it's doable. We've completed a lot of retrofits. The cleaner plants are the ones people are willing to invest in."
Ohio's co-ops have made that investment, and now they've invested in Schunn as well. As a relatively new co-op employee at a 50-year-old co-op power plant, she sees a solid future for both of them.
"You take pride in your work, and I know the people here take pride in the plant," she says. "I want us to be the last coal plant standing."
In fact, she predicts, the Cardinal Power Plant will make it to the century mark.
"We plan to still be going strong years from now. It takes work and dedication from our entire team, but we are moving in that direction to stay competitive in the industry," Schunn says. "I definitely enjoy my job. I'm local, and that helps a lot. My family's here, so it's not something I plan on leaving. I want to make it successful, just like everyone else does."
More: Along Those Lines Podcast, The Rise of Female Lineworkers
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