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National Grid generational shift cited as CEO makes annual visit

National Grid CEO Steven J. Holliday, visiting the Buffalo area from his London office this week to speak at a small energy forum attended by about 200 area academics and business leaders, set aside some time afterward for lunch at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster with 30 local employees.

Each of the employees has worked at National Grid for at least 40 years, a few of 404 such baby boomers approaching retirement age in the company’s offices nationwide.

With continued growth expected in the renewable energy and natural gas sectors, and new challenges to modernize an antiquated energy system, the baby-boom generation of workers in some ways represent a changing of the guard for National Grid as utility companies seek more collaboration between academia and industry leaders to prepare for changes not seen in a century of doing business.

Holliday, in his message Tuesday in a lecture hall at the University at Buffalo’s North Campus in Amherst, lauded local efforts by UB and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus for their progressive approach to developing energy solutions.

But he sounded a slightly ominous note, saying more people must get on board to collectively develop a sustainable system that will become the future for energy generation. “National Grid is going to lose 17,000 years of experience in the United States alone. That’s quite hard to replace,” Holliday said. “The fundamental challenge is this: How will we deliver clean, reliable and affordable energy to support our world into the future?”

Holliday, as part of his annual visit to Western New York, laid out four areas of concern the energy industry must address in coming years:

• An aging infrastructure, including generators more than 50 years old.

• Fine-tuning new technology to support the revolution in renewable and alternative energy sources.

• Reducing the impact of natural weather disasters, which have increased on an international scale.

• Intensified workforce-development efforts, penetrating ranks of schools across the country to establish an interest in math and engineering with students at an early age.

UB earlier this year launched its RENEW initiative to develop research and academic programs that will train students to work as engineers in energy.

“Bringing the brain power, the creativity into this business is important,” Holliday said. “Not just to replace the people who are going to be leaving here as the baby boomers retire, but moreover to think about things in the future is a huge, huge issue for us.”

“Across all of our business, I genuinely think the collaboration going on here is the best I’ve seen,” Holliday said of Buffalo. “But we’re going to have to continue to change.”