ARTICLE

The Secret Ingredient in the Energy Transition
Reaching net zero takes more than technical prowess. We need to collaborate as never before, tapping an often overlooked skill: emotional intelligence.

2022-10-21

In June, Mitsubishi Power, Georgia Power and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reached a major milestone in the energy transition: the use of a 20% hydrogen fuel blend in an advanced-class gas turbine.

It was a groundbreaking achievement that was months in the making, not to mention a highlight in my 22-year career in the power industry. The assembled team had to deliver an unprecedented volume of hydrogen to Georgia Power’s McDonough-Atkinson plant, a working power plant outside Atlanta, mix it with natural gas and feed the combined fuel into the advanced-class gas turbine. None of those tasks had ever been combined at this scale before.

This pioneering work demanded expertise, and each entity involved brought the skills that made the achievement both possible and safe. As you might imagine, some skills were highly technical, and others were surprisingly relational. The ability to build and maintain open lines of communication was an essential part of the project. And that requires a set of social skills we often take for granted.

The impact of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the secret ingredient that enables the level of communication and trust necessary for constructive collaboration. It’s not a widely expected skill in engineering, a field that prizes technical prowess, but once you understand its power, it becomes a critical component of an engineer’s toolkit. Within my team, we actively cultivate these skills through people-development initiatives, including emotional intelligence workshops and other coaching and leadership programs.

As part of our people development training, we found that communication gaps were surprisingly common. That’s a critical problem in talent management: I’ve seen situations on projects where a lack of emotional intelligence cripples communication around a difficult topic, causing some parties to become alienated and disengaged.

Empathy, in particular, plays a key role in effective communication. For example, when somebody fails to do their job, it’s easy to ask for an excuse or to blame them for their mistake. I’ve found that those responses are less effective than learning the other person’s perspective. By doing that, you can come to understand the root problem and start determining how to solve it.

I’ve seen the results on my teams. Adopting a “help first” mentality strengthens relationships, trust and teamwork. Taking a moment to demonstrate empathy invites people into a conversation rather than turning the conversation on them. This approach builds trust, fosters collaboration and ultimately powers solutions.

A sense of shared purpose

In all my years of experience, I’ve learned trust and shared purpose form the foundation of successful collaboration, and neither is possible without strong communication. As obvious as that may seem, it doesn’t make it any less important – especially as project complexity increases. In fact, I think greater complexity makes it even more important to go back to foundational principles like skillful listening and thoughtful speaking and remind everyone of why we’re doing what we do in the first place.

Those of us who work in power generation are ultimately contributing something essential to society at large by creating a path to net zero. In high-stakes projects, it’s easy to lose sight of that common goal in the technical details – and that tendency can test partners’ ability to communicate clearly and openly. If one or more parties feels unheard at a key moment, it can drive a loss of trust that undermines the overall effort.

By fostering an empathetic mindset and communicating openly around a common purpose, partners can more easily collaborate on challenging projects over the long term. In the case of Mitsubishi Power and Georgia Power parent Southern Company, the companies had worked together for 15 years leading up to the McDonough-Atkinson test. The strength of that relationship, built on clear lines of communication and mutual trust in each other’s commitment to our shared purpose, enabled us to work together effectively and broaden the collaboration to other key partners like EPRI.

Inspiration for the next generation

The McDonough-Atkinson project is one of countless joint projects necessary for the world’s energy transition. For these groundbreaking efforts to succeed, we – the engineers, technicians and leaders – will need to combine cutting-edge knowledge with the emotional intelligence and sense of shared purpose that are central for effective teamwork.

As my career has advanced in the last two years, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of the magnitude of what we’re collectively trying to do. The fact that our recent project contributes such an important piece to a critical social endeavor – to support current grid demand by decarbonizing legacy infrastructure while we transition to renewables – was incredibly inspiring.

I believe we need to acknowledge this sense of purpose and the inspiration it can generate, especially as we work to attract bright new people to the power industry. We’re seeing a gap in talent begin to develop, with a generation of highly experienced technicians and supervisors reaching retirement age. Fewer people are coming out of college with the desire to work in our industry, perhaps because they don’t understand the societal impact they can have. The more our teams can accomplish great things together, the more attractive the power industry will be as it competes for talent, and the more meaningfully we can contribute to these larger societal goals.

Communicating our sense of purpose goes well beyond screening people for technical skills or delivering prescriptive assignments. We’re helping employees develop the vital people skills that match their technical sophistication so they can forge the collaborations necessary to build the systems and structures that will make our society more sustainable.

With the power of open communication, collaborative purpose and empathy, we can build on the milestone at McDonough-Atkinson with a stream of other major technological feats – achievements that improve our culture, community, climate and ultimately the world.