Kari Valley – MISO
It’s an obscure entity where Kari Valley has been earning her livelihood for over eight years. Most people dependent on the Midcontinent Independent System Operator never give it a second thought, at least if their electricity is functioning.
Which Valley is proud to say is almost always. But nothing can be taken for granted by those entrusted with keeping the kilowatts coming, including the affable Valley, whose abilities include reducing complex processes to readily understandable terms.
“Think of us as the air traffic controllers of the electric grid,” she tells Vanguard from her office in Eagan, Minnesota, in December. “We don’t own the transmission lines or the generation but manage the system.”
It’s a system that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to just across the central Canadian province of Manitoba, covering 15 Southern and Midwestern states with all kinds of climactic challenges to the grid. And just as air traffic controlling has become more complicated, so too has managing the electric flow for a region with 45 million-plus people.
Since joining MISO in 2015 and serving as its managing assistant general counsel for the past five years, Valley has done her part by, among other responsibilities, weighing in on the long-range transmission plan and supporting a first-of-its-kind interregional planning process with MISO’s counterpart to the west, the Southwest Power Pool.
“We work with stakeholders to plan for the future, supporting the needs of the MISO footprint and ensuring reliability,” she says, citing the big utilities, transmission managers, independent power producers, state regulators, environmental groups and consumer advocates who all have a role in MISO’s anticipation of the region’s electricity needs for the next 20 to 40 years.
Valley shares MISO’s belief that an expanded transmission grid is necessary to meet tomorrow’s energy demands, which will be satisfied more with natural gas and renewables and less with coal. Concurrent to this strategy is the partnership with other Regional Transmission Organizations – RTOs — such as SPP and PJM, which she says helps ensure uninterrupted power in the event of extreme weather that nowadays might not be viewed as so extreme.
Indeed, around the time when Valley spoke with Vanguard, blizzards, freezing rain and ice storms were clobbering some of the states in the MISO and SPP networks, among them Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Fortunately, these grids are connected by transmission lines that fare better than those isolated.
By combining MISO’s regional planning with interregional planning with other RTOs, Valley says the grids will be better prepared for whatever the threat.
As part of this effort, Valley helped move forward innovative approaches to develop new transmission solutions with PJM, which manages the electric grid in 11 states to the east of MISO and the District of Columbia. These new approaches are key for delivering reliability along with economic efficiency. She’ll work off that template to strengthen MISO’s ties with SPP.
In a sense, she says that’s what electricity management is all about: collaboration. And according to her, MISO is the case study.
“None of us is as good as all of us,” she says. “This is the most collaborative place I’ve worked, and I can speak highly of my other places.”
What energizes her
Valley at one time pondered a career in foreign service, but her interests shifted to energy and environmental policy while she earned her master’s at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs following her graduation from Hamline University. She was honing her skills as a utility wonk and rates analyst with the Minnesota Department of Commerce when she realized that a legal background would better fit her goals.
Valley enrolled and graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School and, upon passing the bar in 2003, was hired by the state’s attorney general and assigned to the Public Utilities Commission. There, she logged more than five years, which prepared Valley for her first in-house job as assistant general counsel at Xcel Energy.
Headquartered in Minneapolis, Xcel serves customers in eight states, is the nation’s foremost wind energy provider, and is committed to being carbon-free by 2050. For six years, Valley helped further the company’s progress on all fronts and represented it before the public utilities commissions of multiple states. Still, a more wide-ranging role appealed to her, and she joined MISO in 2015 as director of state regulatory affairs for the northern region.
She’s since earned two promotions and, in February 2019, settled into the third rung on the legal ladder as managing assistant general counsel. She oversees a small team that supports the efforts on resource adequacy, transmission planning and competitive transmission administration. It’s the framework for the future, recognizing and anticipating system needs.
While other lawyers might find it difficult to pore over the devil-ridden details of utility policy, Valley’s excited by it all. “We identify and include in our annual expansion plan which transmission facilities will move forward and work with stakeholders in finding the best solutions to transmission issues,” she says. “I love that there’s always new challenges and issues to address to ensure reliable electric service for the communities in our footprint.”
Most of MISO’s utility members are committed to cleaner or more sustainable power sources, but the change in resource mix requires new and adaptable plans to reliably integrate those resources. MISO’s planning framework enables the integration of more renewable and other resources through its OK of high-voltage transmission lines that, by 2028, will link some of these generators to the grid.
According to Valley, that’s one of the many examples of MISO’s collaborative nature. The interests of utilities, regulators and other stakeholders vary across the footprint. The MISO process reflects these different perspectives while keeping MISO above the fray as an independent planning authority.
Still, discord is only to be expected. In 2022, she had to defend MISO’s first-of-a-kind framework to use energy storage resources for a transmission-only function in federal court. Some utilities wanted a different framework applied, but Valley says MISO’s solution served a greater good.
And just as faceless air traffic controllers safely direct passenger jets to take off and land, Valley says she and her colleagues commit to doing the same on the electricity front. Though she’s reasonably well known in energy circles, lack of widespread recognition doesn’t seem to faze this married mother of a toddler son and adult daughter.
“I often say this is the best job,” Valley says. “It’s engaging on substantive issues and moving forward with initiatives that reflect our values: collaboration, commitment, adaptability, integrity and creativity.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter II 2024 Edition here.
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