Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • WILLIS S. WHITE JR. (1926-2021)
    WILLIS S. WHITE JR>

     

    BY JAMES J. MARKOWSKY

    WILLIS SHERIDAN WHITE JR., a leader in the integration of smaller electric utilities into larger regional electric utilities to achieve greater efficiencies and economies of operation and, for the consumer, lower electric rates and greater power supply reliability, died on July 4, 2021, at the age of 94.

    Born December 17, 1926, in Chesapeake, Virginia, to Carrie (Culpepper) and Willis S. White Sr., Pete, as he came to be known, attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI), where he majored in electrical engineering. He interrupted his college education to enlist in the Navy in February 1945 before World War II’s end and worked in the fairly new fields of radar and sonar. It was a serendipitous interruption, for he met his wife-to-be, LaVerne Behrends, at a Chicago USO. “The Navy didn’t know what to do with us after we finished electronics school, so they sent us home in August 1946,” White recalled. He returned to VPI and graduated in 1948 with a BS in electrical engineering.

    He joined American Electric Power (AEP) in 1948 as an assistant electrical engineer. At that time, the company’s name was American Gas and Electric; the company changed its name in 1958. In 1949, he married LaVerne following a long-distance courtship. They had a son, two daughters, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Pete had a distinguished career with the company and retired in 1992 as chairman and CEO. He served in various management roles in New York, Virginia, and Ohio.

    In the early part of Pete’s career he worked in system planning and was involved in the development and use of electrical system analyzers to study how to control an electrical system in the most effective manner and its behavior under varying conditions. The Defense Electrical Power Administration was formed during the Korean War to allocate hard-to-get resources to feed and electrical power needs to support the war effort. Pete was sent to Washington as a young engineer to assist in the process. He returned in 1952 and became Chairman Philip Sporn’s (NAE 1965, NAS 1962) administrative assistant. Following that assignment he became office manager and held that position until he was selected to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Sloan Fellow. He returned in 1958 with a master of science degree in management and worked in an administrative role until 1961, at which time he was assigned to the Lynchburg, Virginia, district as assistant manager. His management progression continued within Appalachian Power, an operation company within AEP, and he became Appalachian Power executive vice president and chief operation officer in 1969. He returned to AEP headquarters in New York in 1973 as senior executive vice president of operations. In 1976, Donald C. Cook retired as chairman of AEP, and Pete White was selected as his successor.

    Pete White was a dramatic change for AEP. White embodied the spirit of a true Southern gentlemen. He was invariably polite, gracious, thoughtful, and well liked. At that time, the AEP system was comprised of six operation companies, with service territories in six Midwestern states and headquarters in New York City.

    1976 was not the easiest time to come in as chairman of AEP. The offer to buy Columbus and Southern Ohio Electric (C&SOE) company had languished for eight years at the SEC; power plant availability was slumping, Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons perched uselessly in lapels, and what Jimmy Carter called “a malaise” would settle over the land. Short-term money would soon cost up to 18% more, much of the service territories were on the verge of being referred to derisively as the Rust Belt, provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act had begun with stringent amendments just around the corner, and three of the world’s largest generation units (1300 MW) in need of financing were off the drawing boards.

    As he stepped into his new job, one of the first things he had to address was the availability of the coal-fired units, ranging in size from 150 to 1300 MW, which included the five 800 MW double-reheat supercritical units. AEP had prided itself on building and running its plants. If they were not well maintained, they could not run as efficiently as they had been designed to run. This was addressed by reorganizing plant operation and having all the power plants report to a new head of plant operations, which centralized the coordination of plant operation and maintenance within AEP and successfully addressed the reliability and availability of the fleet of coal-fired power plants.

    The next big issue was the SEC surprise approval in 1980, after 10 years, to acquire C&SOE. This would require relocating the headquarters from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, and building a new office building in Columbus. The new headquarters was completed in 1983.

    Not on the radar in 1980 was the 28.5% ownership in the 800 MW Zimmer nuclear power plant being built by a consortium called “the CCD Companies” (Cincinnati Gas and Electric, C&SOE, and Dayton Power and Light). White was assured all along that the construction was just fine. It was 97% completed in 1982, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) called for a stop at the Zimmer site. The commission was not confident that the plant was being built according to its permitting. This was a shock to AEP. The CCD companies hired an architectural and engineering firm to assess how to resolve the NRC concerns. Following the assessment, the estimated costs to resolve the issues raised by the NRC would double from $1.7 billion to $3.5 billion with no assurance that the NRC would accept the finished nuclear plant. The CCD companies agreed that AEP would then look at nonnuclear alternatives for Zimmer.

    The breakthrough alternative White presented to the CCD companies was to convert the 800 MW unfinished nuclear plant to a 1300 MW coal-fired supercritical steam power plant. The key feature for this conversion to a 1300 MW unit was that the low temperature end of the nuclear thermodynamic cycle was similar to AEP’s 1300 MW units and was coupled with the new supercritical steam generator along with the new supercritical topping turbines exhaust steam piped directly into the existing low pressure nuclear steam turbines. AEP was hired to convert the Zimmer plant and the conversion was completed in 1991, on time and under budget. During the Zimmer plant’s first year of operation, the plant operated for 145 days continuously, with a capacity factor of 94.9% and a heat rate of 9,427 Btu/KWH.

    Under Pete White’s leadership, AEP was involved in many firsts due to his strong support of R&D. AEP was a leader in the development of 345,000-to-765,000-volt transmission, in wide-scale interconnections, helicopter construction, and in research in ultra-high-voltage transmission. A high international honor accorded to Pete White came in 1984 when he was elected to a six-year term as president of the Council on Large Electric Systems (CIGRE) — the ninth man but the first American to hold the office in the association’s 63-year history. The International Conference on Large High-Voltage Electric Systems is a forum, located in Paris, that fosters the technical exchange of information on the planning, design, engineering, construction, operation, maintenance, and research and development of high-voltage transmission systems around the world. White had been president of the US Committee of CIGRE for two years before his election to head the worldwide body. He also oversaw significant accomplishment in coal-fired generation, which included the first major R&D program in the United States on pressurized fluidized bed combustion (PFBC) and the first combined-cycle operation of 70 MW PFBC in North America in 1990. Enhanced fossil power plant availability and reliability resulted in one of AEP’s coal-fired generation units (1300 MW) to operate for 607 consecutive days, a world record at that time.

    Honors bestowed on White included the MIT Corporate Leadership Award, the designation of “Chief Executive Officer of the Decade” among the nation’s utility holding companies by Financial World magazine, and in 1989 President George H.W. Bush appointed White to a delegation of American government and business leaders to assist in Poland’s ongoing economic programs and to support its democratic transition.

    Pete White was a devout Christian and dedicated much of his life outside of AEP to public service and charitable causes. He was an amateur musician and played the trombone and piano. He was a member of VPI’s marching band and sang with the AEP choir when he worked for the company in New York. He was a campaign chairman of the United Way of Franklin County, chairman of the Greater Columbus Center Board of Trustees, a trustee of Children’s Hospital, an emeritus trustee of Riverside Methodist Hospital, a board member of the Columbus Area of Commerce, and a board member of Ohio Health. He was also director of several companies and organizations, including the Bank of New York Mellon, Irving Trust Company, the Edison Electric Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Battelle Memorial Institute.

    White also served on the board of the Ohio Methodist Theological Seminary, the Board of Visitors at Virginia Tech, as director of the Virginia Tech Foundation, and trustee of Randolph Macon Women’s College. Virginia Tech awarded him the university Distinguished Service Award. The College of Engineering named its chair for Innovation in Engineering Education in White’s honor.

    Pete White is survived by his wife, Adele McComas White; his children, Willis S. White III, Marguerite (Pat W. Spangler) and Cynthia White-Haight; his brother, Norman T. White; two stepchildren; four grandchildren; and two great grandchildren. In addition to his parents, his first wife, LaVerne B. White, and his sister, Doris White Jones, preceded him in death.