Something Bigger

Alberta Electric System Operator’s Larry Kram explains how the not-for-profit organization is building the province’s future

Before Larry Kram became the Alberta Electric System Operator’s (AESO) general counsel—even before he set foot in law school—he began his working career as a teacher. And though working for an independent, not-for-profit electric-industry organization may seem like a far cry from his teaching past, for him, the keys to being a successful general counsel are the same as being an effective educator. “In an in-house environment, you’re always trying to learn and teach—even doing formal and informal presentations to people,” Kram says. “There’s still a bit of teacher in me.” Here, Kram illuminates how he approaches his work, what makes the AESO unique, and the professional legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Advantage: What does the AESO do, and how is it different from other electric-industry organizations?
Larry Kram: The AESO cannot own any electricity infrastructure but still is mandated to “keep the lights on in Alberta.” We are an independent, not-for-profit entity that provides an essential service. We are responsible for the planning and operation of the Alberta Interconnected Electric System (AIES), which provides nondiscriminatory access to Alberta’s power grid for generation and distribution companies, as well as large consumers. We also operate a wholesale electricity market for all of Alberta.

The AESO isn’t a household name in Alberta—yet. Why is it so vital to Albertans?
It’s vital because of the importance of what we deliver to everyone in society. The AESO is obligated by law to carry out certain duties and responsibilities, and so with that comes a lot of accountability but also a lot of opportunity. We’re delivering on our mandate [from] within as the electric industry is changing and evolving. We’re doing critical work.

How did the general counsel opportunity arise?
Through some connections, I heard about the opening at the Power Pool of Alberta, one of the two companies that eventually were formed into the AESO.  I had been working in the industry,  and I liked the in-house environment. Having had previous experience in the industry, it seemed liked a good fit, and I’ve been here for almost 14 years.

At the time, the Power Pool was relatively small, at 70 employees. But I knew a fair number of the staff, many whom I had worked with before and respected. It was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. The Power Pool did not have an in-house counsel, and all legal work was being done externally. It was an opportunity to build a small team and see how we could help shape the industry.

Larry Kram’s
Career Milestones

1971
Receives his bachelor of arts in history from Harvard University

1975
Graduates with his bachelor of education from the University of Regina, and attends the University of Saskatchewan to earn his law degree

1980
Called to the bar in Saskatchewan

1980–1989
Works in private practice in Regina

1989–1998
Works for SaskPower in Regina and ENMAX Corporation in Calgary

2000–2003
Works for Power Pool of Alberta

2003
Power Pool of Alberta and Transmission Administrator merge to form the AESO

2003–present
Serves as the AESO’s general counsel and corporate secretary

What sorts of projects are you involved in currently?
One of our main functions is to plan the transmission system—the AIES. It’s the highway that moves electricity from where it’s generated to where it can be distributed to end users. Our job is to plan and identify the need for these transmission lines and related infrastructure and to assign the work to other companies to design, obtain regulatory approval to site, and build, own, and operate those assets.

What’s most difficult about the process?
There are a lot of significant challenges. Probably one of the most significant would be identifying an acceptable location to site the lines. No one wants transmission lines in their backyard. And they cost a lot of money.

From the late 1990s to the present, we identified the need for more transmission lines in Alberta. There had been a bit of a lull in building and keeping up with required new infrastructure, and we identified a couple of major projects that were required. But it takes many years to get through the various processes, including the regulatory processes, consultation with stakeholders, etc., to get to the point where we could get steel in the ground. But we’ve finally started to see some real progress.

The legal team wouldn’t pretend to be transmission planners by any means, but we provide support for the work that has to be done by our transmission planners.

Seeing that the AESO is unique, how did you go about building your legal team?
In Calgary, there are a tremendous number of oil and gas companies and a lot of lawyers with that experience. So, within that industry, you can move from one company to another, and the work is quite similar. We don’t have that ability in the electric industry. This is largely due to the smaller number of entities operating within the industry, and in the case of the AESO, we are the only entity doing what we do. As a result, when we recruit, we look as much, if not more, for a desired skill set and a little less so for subject-matter experience. I look for people who have a combination of people and technical skills, and I’ve worked hard to mentor my team.

How Are You Growing?

In 2003, 70-person Power Pool of Alberta merged with the 70-person Transmission Administrator to form the AESO, which now has around 500 employees and consultants

What do you find most challenging about your field?
There are, of course, many challenges, as there are in most industries. Perhaps finding common ground within all the diverse interests is the biggest challenge. To a certain extent, that’s really our job. That is required to act in the public interest, so we do not take sides—whether it’s supporting landowners who don’t want facilities located on their land or industrial consumers who think they’re paying too much. We act for all Albertans, in the public interest.

Why do you think you are successful?
I like to think that I try to find a way to middle ground with internal clients and provide legal services that support what they need but do it in a way that builds long-term, positive relationships. It’s important that one doesn’t overly hesitate about expressing an opinion in a work environment; others are probably thinking the same thing, so I try not to second-guess myself too much.

What keeps you motivated?
I think just being busy, knowing you are supporting an important service and working with similarly motivated people helps. I see all this as a way to keep healthy, active, and engaged. There’s a bit of a buzz you get from that. Coming to work isn’t just about coming to work.

Looking toward the future, do you have any major goals?
Probably my biggest goal is to continue to feel motivated as long as I choose to work. My planned retirement is in the three- to five-year range, so quite frankly I want to walk out the door with my head held high and feeling like a positive contributor to the AESO.