Time To Do Things Differently: NEMA Chair Rich Stinson provides perspective on the re-electrification of North America

By Susan DeGrane | Sep 11, 2023
Rich Stinson - Southwire
As chairman of the board of governors for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rich Stinson is leading the conversation on how the electrical industry will play a role in the re-electrification of North America. 

As chairman of the board of governors for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rich Stinson is leading the conversation on how the electrical industry will play a role in the re-electrification of North America. As part of his role with NEMA, Stinson, alongside NEMA president and CEO Debra Phillips and other representatives, recently met with senators in Washington to discuss and better understand the outlook for transitioning to renewable forms of energy.

“The idea of going from gas and oil to a fully electrified economy that reduces America’s carbon footprint by 50% was up front in our minds in a lot of these discussions,” Stinson said.

NEMA is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to develop American National Standards. The NEMA Board of Governors that Stinson leads includes 30 senior corporate executives elected by NEMA’s general membership. Their committees guide the organization’s operations in Standards and Conformity Assessment Policy, Government Relations and Communications Policy, Section Affairs Policy and Strategic Initiatives Programs. 

Stinson is also president and CEO of Southwire Co., Carrollton, Ga. Southwire supplies assembled products, contractor equipment, electrical components, hand tools and job site power and lighting solutions, and provides a variety of field and support services to customers around the world. 

Hoping to set an example for the industry, the $9 billion company is working to achieve net zero emissions by 2025. So far, Southwire is nearly 60% of the way toward meeting its goals for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Scopes 1 and 2. The company is also working with suppliers and customers to look for opportunities to curb their energy use and emissions.

What is your vision for what’s happening now in the electrical industry?

It’s a great time to be in the electrical industry. We’re moving from coal- and gas-powered generation to solar and wind and other noncarbon-emitting power sources. You have hydro being more of an influence. You have microgrids, and technology relating to small nuclear power plants that fuel neighborhoods and large complexes. There are a lot of products being designed for all of these things. The whole idea is to fully re-electrify North America.

Manufacturers are investing more in research and development for making products for renewable technologies. At Southwire, we’ve doubled our R&D budget since 2021, and it’s all going toward renewables and emerging verticals.

On the other side, you have to consider where technologies are being used. That’s changing. 

We’ve had great discussions to consider where renewables are being used. There’s EV charging, mass transit, electrification of seaports and airports, as well as 5G and data centers. The whole world is changing. Manufacturers are changing designs to fit new applications. I’ve been in the electrical industry for 41 years, and this is the most exciting time.

How important is training for being able to deploy these new products and technologies?

Overall, I believe workforce training is one of the most important elements supporting our ability to re-electrify North America. It’s a big topic of discussion at NEMA. When Debra Phillips and I and others from NEMA spoke with the senators in July, we talked clearly about the need to put out more people who are trained to do this work. We talked about the need to get more federal government dollars for training, both for manufacturers and contractors. 

Providing instruction and education is a trend among manufacturers both externally and internally. Southwire strives to support a highly trained workforce of its own and to be an employer of choice.

To keep the industry in step, many manufacturers are working with contractors to train on installation. Our priorities are to achieve safety, then quality, then productivity and efficiency. As an example, Southwire has Southwire Solutions University, a 25,000-square-foot facility near its headquarters. Contractors come here to learn the latest installation methods for our products to achieve safety and to save on labor. 

We also have to be sufficiently committed … as far as growing the numbers of electricians, technicians and installers, because the world is moving so quickly. With so many new products and new applications, at Southwire, we bring contractors in for training every day. 

What are your thoughts about the industry being able to overcome workforce shortages?

When you think about the number of people who are retiring and numbers of people coming into the industry, let’s face it, there’s a real constraint on going after all the business that’s out there. 

One of our biggest challenges is not having enough electricians to do installations and not having enough people on the manufacturing floor. That is something all NEMA members are having to deal with, so addressing this has become a major objective for us through 2025. 

With all the new products, training people remains a formidable challenge, but manufacturers are committed to working closely with contractors and to helping electricians and apprentices achieve safe conditions, quality conditions and, ultimately, product efficiencies.

What about upholding manufacturing and installation standards of the industry amid all this rapid development?

Areas experiencing the most development and requiring the greatest attention to standards are, once again, on the generation side: solar and wind and other renewables. 

On the usage side, it would be EV charging, EV infrastructure, data centers and electrification of ports. Where once you had a ship using a diesel-powered generator, now they’re plugging an electrified connector into a utility to provide for a ship’s refrigeration needs.

Major growth elements in infrastructure renewal and expansion are new chip manufacturing plants fueled by the CHIPS and Science Act, as well as the construction of a lot of battery energy storage plants. Battery storage is extremely important in the electrification effort. As all these new applications come about, U.S. and international standards play extremely important roles in relation to safety and quality. 

NEMA works closely with UL. For international coordination of electrical standards, international players—UL, IEC and NEMA—must work together to facilitate the electrification transition. Stateside, NEMA works with ANSI. That being said, in the U.S., it can be a NEMA and ANSI market. But I believe both worlds can coexist regionally and employ international standards, depending on the applications.

Where does America stand in relation to other nations as far as making progress in the electrification transition?

Europe is ahead, and the United States and Canada are doing a lot. I do believe the amount of money being spent by the federal government—the $1.2 trillion with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the $400 billion with the Inflation Reduction Act and the $280 billion being spent for the CHIPS and Science Act—offers strong support to re-electrify America. The effort can go a long way—as long as the money is spent effectively on the right applications. 

In some areas of rapid development, electrical contractors have expressed a desire for interchangeability among products and parts. Do you see products becoming more interchangeable among brands, or becoming more brand-specific in their applications?

It depends on the application. The application dictates the level of complexity. 

The more generic the function, the easier the application, the more flexibility you have (for interchangeability). But there are certain applications where unique technologies and solutions have to be employed. 

There are a lot of very difficult types of installations. Sometimes the level of difficulty relates to a specification issue. 

Things are designed around an application, so what manufacturers do is provide a differentiated spec, which makes that application optimal. You (the manufacturer) design a system around that application, and it can include redundancies. It can include assembly and components around that specific application. You end up with a unique design for that application. 

In that case, for best performance, there’s less flexibility as far as changing things out.

What about supply chain issues? What are manufacturers doing to help get products and materials in ECs’ hands?

This, too, has been a major topic of discussion among the NEMA constituency. Overall, supply chain snags have eased to some regard, but unevenly. 

There are still issues with electrical steel shortages and labor and machine capacity. There are major supply issues around chips, but there’s also been a lot of work done around strengthening the supply chains for chips. 

For items like circuit breakers, switchgears, variable-frequency drives and programmable logic controllers, lead times are still long, but this has steadily improved since 2022. Digital ordering solutions have accelerated placement of orders.

How long do you think full electrification will take?

It will take decades. A lot has to happen. 

There must be enough sources of power generation. There must be resiliency within the grid, as well as hardening of the grid. From a usage standpoint, we need to implement an EV infrastructure, and we need to transition other petroleum-powered operations over. 

The opportunities ... are immense. The amount of work that’s out there is greater than what can get done. 

Everyone in the industry must be willing to innovate and learn new ways of doing things. Contractors must take advantage of digitalization for ordering. To weather supply chain shocks, they need to store larger inventories. They must stretch manpower by resorting to prefabrication, which uses less labor in a controlled environment and reduces time and hazards at job sites. They must build more capital to weather economic shocks. They must do things differently than the way they did 20 years ago. 

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].





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