In Alaska, it comes down to this: If you can do the job; do the job.
It doesn’t matter much if you are male or female, young or old. In this northern world where the extremes of weather, distance, geography and lack of supply and infrastructure are a constant challenge and concern, a co-op director’s role is expansive – most directors must address generation and transmission issues right along with distribution.
Attracted by the Love of Infrastructure
“What attracted me was my love of infrastructure and how things work – especially when it comes to large-scale energy.”
Chastain joined the board two years ago, bringing with her a solid background as a chemical engineer with two decades of experience in oil exploration, pipelines and development of facilities. Her level of expertise led her to being the CEO of her own firm for most of her career and taking her oilfields well beyond those beneath Alaska’s tundra.
It fascinated her then and informed her decision to take advantage of Alaska’s education program to send its smartest young people to colleges for training in technical fields.
The irony is that while her technical credentials would be star-quality for almost any co-op in the lower 48, three other colleagues on her board also are engineers, two of them, females. The women outnumber the men 4 to 3 in this boardroom.
Chugach Board Tilts to Females and Engineers
“Well, we are definitely the anomaly when we show up as a group for our gender and skills composition, but in Alaska, it is always about getting the job done and not so much about who can do it,” she said.
Her election converged at a good time in her life. Her family demands had lessened and she had sold her firm, where she remains as a consulting engineer.
Chugach serves about 84,000 meters in an area extending from Anchorage to the northern Kenai Peninsula, and from Whittier on Prince William Sound to Tyonek on the west side of Cook Inlet. Chugach has 531.2 megawatts of generation capacity. It operates 2,113 miles of energized line at year-end, consisting of 407 miles of transmission line, 897 miles of overhead distribution line, and 809 miles of underground distribution line.
Despite her qualifications, Chastain said that being a director at Chugach is even more challenging because it must consider generation and transmission among factors when the board makes decisions about power supply and delivery.
“We make a lot of weighty decisions and I was initially surprised by that. While I was aware of the oil industry, the electric grid and delivery is a whole different area. I had much to learn because the decisions we make must be sound ones that will have ramifications 30 or 40 years from now,” Chastain said.
It’s All About Sustainability
For example, much of her focus is on sustainability out to the year 2023. That’s how long the supply of natural gas that fuels the co-op’s generators is expected to last. The co-op has purchased an existing field, but the challenge is stemming the decline of that resource while maintain the aging infrastructure. The co-op is looking at other alternative or renewable sources.
“There is never a dull moment. Fortunately, we have a brilliant CEO and management team and a very capable board. We’re not just engineers. We have members with deep financial, legal and business backgrounds.
Beyond that, she said that her involvement in the co-op has expanded her awareness of the Alaska’s patchwork of grids that are not interconnected because of the distance and the state’s geography of mountains, lakes and forests.
“Alaska is still in its infancy in terms of grid unification. This has implications for all power producers because we also have fuel supply issues. What I have found out is that making informed decisions relating to these issues requires a steep learning curve.”
In fact, Chastain laughs recalling what a Chugach employee told her right after she came on the board.
Takes Awhile for a Board Member to be of ‘Real Value’
“I was told by this person that I would be of no real value to the organization until I had been on the board at least three years and properly had my arms around everything. She was right. My head was spinning.”
To get her arms around everything, Chastain said she is fast-tracking her way through NRECA’s board education opportunities.
“These courses are second to none in my opinion and I have sat through a lot of courses in my education and career. I am amazed by the cooperative business model and remain so. This concept never crossed my radar as a structure to deliver power.”
As she learns, as she attends meetings, Chastain said that she is driven by how much the goal of sustainability must underscore the co-op’s actions in simply keeping the lights on.
“In Alaska, we are the whole ball of wax. Nobody has our back. Not really. This is a fact that you grow up with here. It leads to an understanding that even small decisions can have consequences and outcomes that you may not expect. You have to be careful and you have to be able to think long into the future.”
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
How did you come to be on the board?
I was elected two years ago. I was familiar with people on the board and had been asked to serve before. I always said no because I was busy running my own company and I didn’t want to be involved in something I couldn’t commit 110 percent to. A vacancy came up and so some colleagues asked me, so I was recruited and then I ran..
Why are there more females and engineers on your board? It is definitely different from most co-ops.
It is just a function of being in Alaska. What counts is who can do the job.
What surprised you the most in joining the board?
The chemical and oil industry is very different than the electric utility world. What surprised me the most is the incredible organization and expertise of our board. You aren’t aware of it until you are part of it.