Area woman is new plant manager at Cardinal
BRILLIANT — The Cardinal Operating Co., which manages the 1,800-megawatt electric generation station south of Brilliant, has a new plant manager, Bethany Schunn of St. Clairsville.
She is the first woman in the 50 years of operation for Cardinal to hold the top post, but she says that’s incidental to the work she’s done and her credentials.
During a recent interview, Schunn, of St. Clairsville, talked about her rise through the ranks with AEP and Buckeye Power, the parent of Cardinal, which assumed management of the plant March 1.
She’s a chemist by trade with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from West Virginia Wesleyan and a master’s in business administration from Wheeling Jesuit University.
She began working in the power industry in 2005 at the AEP Conesville Plant chemistry lab and worked at the plant for 12 years in various departments, eventually becoming “process owner” of the construction of the plant’s jet-bubbling reactor pollution control project. As maintenance superintendent at Conesville, she had responsibility for oversight of contractors, planners, maintenance and more.
She came to Cardinal in 2017, working as transition manager and then as assistant plant manager before stepping into the position that became available with the retirement of Chuck George after 34 years in the power industry.
Schunn says Cardinal is in business for the long haul.
“We’re taking on a new evolution, as the business model has changed and we’re in a competition now with gas plants on cost. We have other coal-fired plants. Just getting everyone’s mind set on that and looking to the future and not just the immediate needs, is what we need to do here,” Schunn said. “That’s one of my goals here is to get everyone rowing in the same direction to achieve that together. It’s a lot easier when there are 300 people going in the same direction rather than just a few.”
Schunn said it is a challenging time for coal-fired power plants, though Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, of which Buckeye Power is the generating arm, notes Cardinal is among the cleanest coal-fired plants in the world.
“We have spent a large sum and continue to spend on environmental upgrades,” she said. Cardinal has scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide, a trona injection system for reduction of sulfur trioxide (trona is a natural mineral), precipitators for removal of flyash, selective catalytic reduction systems for reduction of oxides of nitrogen.
“We invite anyone to come and we can show them what we do for the environment, not just the air and the atmosphere. We have very stringent regulations on the river,” she said. Schunn said the plant has had no environmental concerns and set a safety record earlier this year.
“I invite anyone who wants to come so we can explain it to them. It’s hard when there’s a lot of naysayers out there and they don’t know the full story. If they would come to the plant or go on one of our tours, we could show them.”
Patrick Higgins, spokesman for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, said, “Coal is not a four-letter word for us. We are well aware of the juxtaposition, but, we do take the environmental concerns very seriously. We run clean, but we need to serve with reliability. People want lights to come on, they want power for health care and hospitals and to power up their devices. It’s a juggling act and I think we’re successful at it.”
Coal, he said, remains the most affordable and reliable source of production. Buckeye Power has two gas-fired plants, but he noted gas as a fuel remains subject to market volatility compared with the stable price of coal.
Schunn noted Cardinal’s coal is local, brought up river to the plant by barge at a lower cost than rail or road shipments.
She noted Buckeye Power owns Units 2 and 3, while AEP retained ownership of Unit 1 at Cardinal.
“We plan to be here for the long haul. There may be more environmental regulations to comply with, but we anticipate that and will plan for those as they come up,” Schunn said. “We have cooperatives to serve, to provide energy for those co-op members and we realize we have to control costs to be efficient to compete with gas and other coal-fired electric plants.”
While she doesn’t push the agenda of women in the workplace as her first cause, preferring to run a big power plant efficiently, cleanly and safely, it is unavoidable that the topic does come up among those who haven’t worked with her.
“In this industry, I’m proud of any woman in any role who works here, or in any male-dominated industry,” she said. “I’m proud of myself for picking up the different aspects of the job over the years.
“There’s not a lot of women in science anymore, so that’s a big help. A lot of the roles here are science- or engineer-driven and that helped me with my background in chemistry,” Schunn said.
She has noticed more women entering science now, which she said will help women advance in the future and bring more women into the utility industries.
Higgins said Buckeye Power has the Be E3 Smart Program, which provides resources for elementary school teachers to introduce the sciences to young children. The energy industry has worked for years to try to reach young children to get them interested in science, Higgins said. Students around the state have the opportunity to tour their power plant, including tours that take place at Cardinal. Higgins said as Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives get more involved in the management of Cardinal, the program will grow locally.
Schunn said it provides many science-related resources for teachers throughout the state.
She said developing the career in the power industry wasn’t some lifelong goal.
“In college, I looked at pharmacy and other majors and I had minors in business and economics. I liked business and the science aspect,” she said.
When she started in the power industry there were other females working in the plant, and she says there never has been an issue of being treated differently by men on the job.
“They all treated me the same as I think they would treat their other co-workers who are male,” she said. “There are a whole bunch of pieces that fit together in the puzzle” in a power plant, she said, “so I think you have to use your resources. I needed them and they needed me, so it worked out.”
Schunn has three children, including a 5-year-old boy and twin 2-year olds, a boy and a girl. Her husband of 14 years, Matt, is an electrician.
Managing a power plant isn’t always a leave-it-at-the-office kind of job.
“I definitely have good support from my family. You have to. There have been times when it’s been challenging but you just have to do what you have to do. There is a time-management portion and I do a lot of work at home, but I have to wait until the kids are in bed,” Schunn said.
At Cardinal, she said the work force has gotten over some hurdles and there are lessons being learned along the way.
“We’re generating electricity, and the overall goals are the same. Everyone is pitching in and helping. Our employees have been great,” she said, adding that the employees have helped identify and offer solutions to issues while helping with the transition from 49 years of operating under Ohio Power and AEP to Buckeye Power. That has included forming a lot of the support structures that were part of AEP but that Cardinal Operating Co. needs to develop.
“I cannot say enough about the employees through the transition. It has been a joint effort of management and the employees,” she said, noting that developing new teams has taken place while people are still doing their regular jobs.
“Everyone really has chipped in and helped, pulling double duty, doing their regular job and additional work with the transition,” she said.
(Giannamore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)