Woman Engineering the Future – A Conversation with Electric Power Engineers CEO Hala Ballouz

All engineering consulting firms are not the same, as proven by Electric Power Engineers, based in Texas and Illinois in the U.S., as well as Panama and Lebanon, it is a global company also serving clients in Jamaica, Jordan, and more. The company has a focus on designing and developing the future of the grid.

That is backed by services and solutions spanning utility engineering, grid and resource integration, reliability and compliance, and software and grid analytics. Acquired by Hala Ballouz in 2007, an engineer who is responsible for the company ten years later being named one of the Top 100 fastest growing businesses in Texas.

Public Utilities Fortnightly wanted to know more about her success in building the largest power play only consulting firm in the grid analytics and resource integration world. The discussion says a lot about success in the power engineering realm.

PUF’s Steve Mitnick: What is Electric Power Engineers trying to do now and into the future?

Hala Ballouz: EPE is a reputable power systems engineering consulting firm, possibly the largest independent pure power play firm, focused on the grid analytics and resource integration worlds. Where it’s going is based on a vision we set.

I always say a company without a vision and a mission has no soul. We are committed to lead the industry in the holistic planning, design, and integration of clean energy in the grid end-to-end — from the distributed edge, all the way to the bulk power system — and everything in between, to achieve sustainable energy goals.

Where it’s going is to relentlessly continue to expand our expertise and deliver on the need in the industry for an end-to-end holistic solution that maintains the resiliency and economics in the grid to deliver equitable and reliable energy to end consumers.

PUF: Talk about the people and leaders of your organization. You built EPE and now have a culture. What kind of culture, what kind of people?

Hala Ballouz: The culture in the organization is that of teamwork and of a family. There is a culture of working as a team internally and with our customers, and it is magical. As far as I can remember, we have always said, “We are an extension of your team,” to our clients; extending our internal culture to them.

It is also about working together to deliver beyond what the client asks for. That’s why we have a holistic set of expertise, making our people so capable and excited to help our customers reach their goals; to see what otherwise may be beyond their angle of view.

Allow me to go back to the family culture. Honestly, it’s based on a lot of love. It may not be typical of a CEO to talk about love, but it’s been key to the culture of this business; to love what you do, enjoy each other, and enjoy and take pride in the quality and impact of the product. It’s a powerful culture that continues to draw a workforce that cares to make a difference and wants to come and work here.

We’re also unique in our focus on innovation and having that as part of our culture. We have invested in the automation of our studies and in software intelligence ever since I can remember.

We stand today in a unique position with our SaaS software tool, in which we extend our expertise and make it available to solve clients’ problems. It is important in this world of evolving technology and in the face of a continuously changing grid, to be able to model all of what’s coming at the grid quickly and not be dependent only on third-party tools. That gives EPE an additional cutting edge and empowers and inspires our engineers to innovate in their solutions.

This is all so valuable for us because we hire power systems engineers who are hard to find, and that culture has been key to our success. Everybody can offer a role, but not everybody can offer our culture.

PUF: How did you grow EPE? Not many in this field have women as the founders, CEOs, the driving force.

Hala Ballouz: It is all about passion for this industry, innovation, and challenge. All deeply rooted and well founded.

Sometimes I like to think a seed was planted as a little kid, arm raised up high to hold on to my dad’s warm hand while we were walking together. He was a powerful, visionary man, who loved stimulating thought. He would say, “Look at our footsteps, they’re so powerful. Why can’t we generate power from the footsteps of millions of people?”

This stuck in my head for years. Look at where we are today, aggregating distributed energy.

Fast forward to high school, I asked my physics professor, “What can I do in college with my love for math and physics?” He answered, “Electrical engineering, but it is too hard for a woman.” This was the gift of challenge I needed right there and then.

Fast-forward a year or two, I came to the U.S., to Texas A&M. I’m an Aggie, and so proud of it. Luck, determination, and hard work come together.

One of the best power systems professors and researchers, if not the best, gave me this opportunity at A&M for my master’s thesis and it was about the positive impact of large-scale fast energy storage on the electric grid. There was a technology back then called superconductive magnetic energy storage. It was similar to batteries in its fast digital control characteristics, but also large scale.

The result was a master’s thesis and a couple of papers published on the impact of large-scale energy storage on the economics and reliability of the grid by shaving off peak load and reducing the cycling of generators. That research and study allowed me to set the stage to think about things holistically, not just about wires and poles or the one-way direction in how we deliver the energy.

It planted in me, early on, a passion and understanding of the significance of holistically balancing resources, economics, reliability, and what runs through the wires through technology. All this shaped how I built EPE, and the roots of the grid expertise it has become.

I built EPE from scratch to be what it is today, after working at EPE, then buying it from my mentor who owned it, when it was a lifestyle business with just four of us. EPE employs close to three hundred people as of this writing.

In the late 1990s, I invested in learning about wind generation, and better understanding the importance of renewables. I became passionate about it, so I invested myself and the business in it.

The team of ten at that time immersed ourselves in learning how to help developers interconnect renewables to the grid. Then we repeated the same thing for solar, then energy storage, batteries, hydrogen, et cetera.

As the grid became more complex, our team invested in making sure we were looking to see where the next challenges are. We understood early on again that compliance and reliability will become more complex and demanding. The more we added renewables, the more regulation and other needs had to come into play.

We started helping the utilities with how to integrate more renewables into the grid and how to address reliability compliance studies. Then again, we saw ahead the needs and complexities of the integration of grid-edge technologies were the same, such as distributed energy resources, electric vehicles, et cetera, so we developed the right services and software to help accelerate and support this transition.

I made sure EPE grew like the grid, always looking steps ahead, anticipating grid challenges and building up the services to remove those roadblocks. Our heart and soul at EPE are immersed in solving problems to enable the grid of the future.

PUF: Think of a few assignments you’ve had with utilities that you are proud of, and you feel like the firm made a big impact.

Hala Ballouz: One very recent example is with Paducah Power System, a public power utility in Kentucky, on electric vehicle readiness, resulting in a blueprint that will help other utilities across the industry on their electrification journeys.

Our team created a plan that combines technical grid analysis expertise with solutions that include diversity, equity, and affordability, where electric mobility is not only reliable but also genuinely represents the needs and wants of the community.

In other assignments, such as those helping ISOs and utilities with utility scale generation interconnection studies, our team has succeeded where other consultants failed, to work as a team with our clients to significantly clear the interconnection queue and allow the integration of much needed generation, particularly renewables, to the grid.

With another utility, we worked with their grid modernization and resource innovation teams to study and connect grid-forming inverters on the distribution system to further large-scale integration of distributed energy resources, while improving stability of the grid.

In our work, we are intentionally always aware that what used to be bifurcated transmission and distribution is no longer the case. So, we take our tools and our expertise with the understanding that we have to holistically optimize and balance the enablement of large-scale adoption of distributed energy resources with the transmission grid and bulk energy system.

PUF: What do you think is the secret sauce of EPE that makes the utilities working with you want to do more with them and tell utility friends about you?

Hala Ballouz: Well, quality is key, but it is beyond that. It’s innovation in the delivery of quality solutions to our utility clients.

There is significant need for new ways to plan, design, and operate the changing grid, and for the innovation that EPE delivers holistically across the end-to-end grid expertise inside the firm. We convey that to our utility clients as an extension of their team.

We bring to our clients the deepest inter-disciplinary and technical expertise in resource and technology integration, transmission and distribution planning, software and systems integration, NERC and FERC reliability compliance, grid-modernization roadmaps, and electrification, working across market sectors and with technology vendors.

The important piece is keeping electricity as affordable as possible as we transition to clean energy with new technologies, while maintaining reliability. It is a critical dance in the energy transition that requires new ways of planning and designing the grid holistically across T&D. EPE brings the innovation and expertise necessary to our utility clients to do just that.

PUF: There’s so much work to be done in the grid’s transformation. Some say there’s a war for talent because there’re only so many good engineers and quantitative folks. How does EPE attract and retain the best talent?

Hala Ballouz: It is all of the above. Do you know how much these engineers value innovation, how much they want to be part of the team that is providing solutions to the grid challenges? We all know if we don’t do this right, the lights may not be on.

When they come to an organization that has figured out how to put material success last, yet still achieve it through higher goals, it gets very interesting. We are about solving what matters in this world and our talent loves that.

Our talent are all part of a purpose and a solution, a vision, and a mission. The grid is complex and what we are doing today is more intriguing and difficult than ever, and it is our responsibility to make sure this energy transition is successful.

To summarize, it is the unique culture of mission-drive; innovative, incredible engineering expertise and mentorship, and a family feel.

PUF: Where is EPE going to be three to five years from now?

Hala Ballouz: I don’t believe strength is in numbers and how big we are, but in our ability to continue to deliver unparalleled value to our clients and to the industry. I cannot deny the fact that we will continue to be aggressively growing.

We have tripled in size in the last couple of years. Our growth is a natural response to the industry’s need and our determination to deliver on our vision and mission to serve the industry.

There is a lot of work for us to do to craft our growth to be meaningful and two steps ahead of the growing pains of our industry, including building on our conviction to empower our clients with intelligence in a powerful combination of consulting services and software solutions.

Humbly, we are doing a lot more than any other pure play power systems engineering organization is doing, but there’s so much more that we need to be doing to serve the needs of this industry.

The sky is the limit to where EPE is going, and it is going to be always geared toward fulfilling our vision and mission and being the trusted advisor to our clients. One thing is for sure, however, our culture and values come first, and we will sacrifice growth before culture anytime. So far, we haven’t had to.

PUF: What’s the most rewarding aspect for what you do as the founder?

Hala Ballouz: It is leading the organization with one heartbeat, the thrill of driving for excellence while motivating and inspiring our teams and creating healthy, thought-provoking challenges for them and with them.

Seeing the entire organization resonate together with me in the belief that success is measured by the impact we make on the industry and the innovation we deliver, is most rewarding to me. Seeing the individuals inside the organization empowered, growing, and advancing is like a sustainable energy source for my leadership

I have to tell you that it is very rewarding to watch the foundations of what I built being propelled through amazing teams and to grow around and beyond me. It is hard to beat that feeling.