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Does a Secure Energy Mix Equal a Secure America?


Sponsored by Southern Company

“After nine years I had experienced quite a bit with the Navy,” Kris Honomichl says, reflecting on the path that has brought her to her current job. “I’d seen a lot of the world. I’d earned my college degree.” Honomichl’s time in the service took her to the Persian Gulf on the USS Camden, where she helped maintain the ship’s electronic gear. Later on, she taught Navy leadership courses in Mayport, Florida.

“I got to a point where I’d been gone for nine years. It was a turning point in my life. I said, I don’t want to miss any more of my family than I’ve already missed,” she recalls. “So it was just time for a change. I felt that I could be successful in the civilian world after what I had accomplished in the Navy.”

But while she was leaving the service, it was important to Honomichl to find an employer who would share her values, values that the Navy helped to nurture. It was the search for such an employer that brought her to her current job at Southern Nuclear, a division of U.S. energy giant Southern Company. Honomichl manages a team at subsidiary Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle 3 and 4, two new nuclear generation units under construction. Rising out of the ground at the Vogtle site in Waynesboro, Georgia–which already has two operating nuclear units—the new units are expected to come on line in 2017 and 2018, thanks to Honomichl and about 5,000 other employees and contractors working on the project.

Coming home to Georgia after her Navy years in Florida, Honomichl began, she says, “doing research on Plant Vogtle and Southern Company. There were a lot of similarities between Southern Company and the military.” Perhaps most important is what the company is working toward. “The core values of the Navy are honor, courage, and commitment. The core values of Southern Company are unquestionable trust, superior performance, and total commitment,” says Honomichl. “Those are the things I want out of a company. Those are the things that match me as a person.” Now that she has found just the right job, she plans to stay as long as she can—she says she’d like to retire at Southern Company.

Honomichl’s story shows the value not just of hard work but of extensive research and forward thinking. Both are strategies she and Southern Company share: just as planning ahead is critical to finding the right career after leaving a rewarding term in military service, it is absolutely essential to finding the right fuel mix, whether for an individual energy company or the United States as a whole.

A piece in The New Republic acknowledged as much as early as 1970—three full years before the OPEC oil embargo forced all Americans to acknowledge the need for a future-facing energy strategy. The article correctly predicted the ascendance of natural gas as a power source (though it couldn’t have anticipated the discovery of new reserves that are fueling today’s gas boom). It also presciently pointed to the vast possibilities of nuclear energy—today a workhorse of America’s energy strategy, producing 20 percent of the country’s electricity—and the continued importance of coal as a fuel.

The same values that drew Honomichl to Southern Company have helped the company plan for the long term. The goal, Southern Company executives say, is to provide affordable power to customers while strengthening America’s energy supply. Southern Company Chairman, President, and CEO Tom Fanning says that he believes the U.S. can “lead the world in energy.” As he sees it, the country has the potential to become a net exporter of energy by 2020 and the largest net exporter in the world by 2030 or 2035.

But this vision of the future—one where America’s energy industry helps bolster the country’s economy and national security—will only come about, Fanning says, if the country continues on a path toward developing the full portfolio of energy resources: nuclear, twenty-first-century coal, natural gas, renewables, and energy efficiency.

Energy companies, by their nature, play a role that straddles free enterprise and the national interest, and this is also true as they plan their “energy mix”—the portfolio of fuel sources they will draw on to generate power. Southern Company’s Vice President of System Planning Jeff Burleson describes a system of “good working relationships” at the state and federal levels. “What we find is generally speaking that we have the same goals as the regulators do. Everybody’s aiming for assuring we’ve got high reliability and affordable prices,” he says. “We collaborate with them … to help them see, from one utility’s perspective, the value of the ‘full portfolio,’ and how that really helps our region of the U.S. and the country as a whole.” The company always emphasizes prudent strategic planning when it comes to choosing what sources it will use to generate its power.

The author of the New Republic piece, Ralph E. Lapp, correctly predicted that “the energy mix by the year 2000 [would] include natural gas, uranium, and coal as the basic fuels.” Today, all of these are important components both of Southern Company’s fuel portfolio and of the broader U.S. energy mix. While generation sources can vary depending on the season and on fuel prices, at the end of 2013, Burleson says, Southern Company was generating roughly 38 percent of its energy from coal, 42 percent from natural gas, 16 percent from nuclear, and four percent from hydropower. “You just don’t want to put too much dependence on any one fuel source,” he says.

That maxim is true whether the portfolio in question is one company’s or the United States’s overall. When it comes to protecting America’s security, the work Honomichl did in the Navy was key—but the work she does at Southern Company, bringing new nuclear generation capabilities on line, is also very important.

Once she had identified Southern Nuclear as the place she wanted to work, Honomichl pursued her goal with determination. She was hired in 2006 in the entry-level position of nuclear technician, initially assigned to facility repairs and other miscellaneous beginner’s tasks. The work was tough, but to Honomichl it was worth it. “I did that because I wanted to work at Southern Company.”

She soon moved up in the company—thanks to “the experience and knowledge I gained in the military,” she says, but also thanks to the company’s focus on developing the talents and skills of its employees. After spending about four years as an instrumentation and controls technician at Plant Vogtle units 1 and 2, she was again promoted, this time to the rank of supervisor. The company moved her to its new project at the Vogtle site, where she oversees a team of four people who are responsible for ensuring the plant’s digital instruments safely and accurately support the operations of the new units. She finds the experience of working on the new plant invigorating. “I think there’s a different sense of ownership when you’re actually seeing it being built,” she says. “Right now is the time to get it right for Vogtle 3 and 4. The work that we do today will make it a safer, more reliable plant in 2017 and 2018.”

Honomichl’s ability to think long-term gave her civilian job search a very happy ending. “I always get the question, ‘Man, how can I get a job out there?’” she says, referring to Plant Vogtle. (She lives in Lincolnton, Georgia, near the Waynesboro site). “Everyone I know is excited for anyone who works here, just because it is a great place to work. It’s got a great reputation. People are lined up wanting a job here.” The company employs many local people, contributing to what Honomichl says is a good environment for a job search in the area around Waynesboro: “There’s plenty of employment here for sure.” In fact, 25 percent of new hires at Vogtle 3 and 4 are veterans.

Burleson agrees that a sound, diversified energy strategy, among its many other benefits, can “absolutely” help to protect jobs.

“If we do a good job taking care of our customer, in terms of reliability of our product and affordability, that is going to help us have a healthy company that is able to provide a stable work environment, provide competitive pay and benefits, and allow our company to continue to be successful down the road.” A diverse fuel portfolio means high fuel prices or extraction problems in one sector won’t bring the company to its knees, which can help to save jobs and maintain compensation standards.

Even though she has left the Navy, Honomichl is still serving the national interest through her work at Southern Company. And in return, the company—relying on its diverse fuel strategy—will serve hers.