Meet JJ Vandette: WEC’s Inaugural Director of Special Projects and Innovation

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WEC welcomed 2024 with a new member on its senior leadership team. In the first days of the new year, JJ Vandette joined WEC staff as the Co-op’s first Director of Special Projects and Innovation.

Other Vermont utilities, including Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Co-op, have senior positions with “Innovation” in the title. It’s a word that suggests the meeting of ideas and action–but what does it mean in practice? “The title has innovation in it, but a lot of work I’ll do is optimization,” specified Vandette: “More impact, less effort.” 

Vandette’s goal is to make sure WEC captures all the public funding it is eligible for, to keep rates as affordable as possible for members. That also means identifying opportunities to partner with others in Vermont’s electric utility sector, in order to access grants or scale opportunities. Another area of optimization is to assess WEC’s resources: identifying and ramping up underused ones to more fully meet their potential, and investing wisely in new ones. 

A project manager by training and at heart, Vandette said he enjoys projects that require strategic planning. “It forces you to look historically, find trends and barriers, and plan out multiple years. I like opportunities to learn from the past and use that to steer the ship,” he said.

In his new role at WEC, he will combine learning from the past with a very recent rush of federal funding and ever-evolving tech opportunities. “The common arc is trying to tie dollars and partnerships to get funding today to allow the Co-op to reach its long-term goals. Not just to get today’s work done, but to anticipate what’s coming. It’s hard to do. That’s the challenge of it,” he smiled.

Project management in changing times

Vandette is an attentive listener who sports a streaked beard and has the focused energy of an endurance athlete: he’s thru-hiked both the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail (which he’s hiked again, in sections). He comes to WEC from a 13-year career at the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), which is the parent organization of Efficiency Vermont. Early on, he showed aptitude for understanding projects both globally and in a hands-on sense, working to evolve the offerings of the energy efficiency utility and earning the respect of others in the field with his curiosity about everything at the crossroads of energy and economy.

His interest in that intersection led him to study environmental studies and marketing at the University of Utah–that and the promise of snorkel days on the slopes, a big attraction to an avid snowboarder from southern New Hampshire. Vandette returned east to work at VEIC, he said, because he decided to focus his career on long-term economic decisions that are also good for the environment, and that “drew me into energy efficiency out of the gate.”

At VEIC, Vandette worked on energy efficiency in agriculture, helping to bring new technologies to Vermont’s dairy farmers and commercial sugarmakers. As he developed his knack for project management, he began managing a research and development portfolio, recognizing underused resources and making it easier for staff to use them better. Because Efficiency Vermont has regulatory obligations as an energy efficiency utility, he explained, “streamlining existing processes that help fellow staff focus on deliverables takes pressure off of staff.” The deliverable, often, was a project or process that created a doorway to the future. The projects Vandette managed were “right up against the line of regulatory boundaries, like PowerShift,” he said.

PowerShift is a partnership between WEC, Efficiency Vermont, and the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (VPPSA) in which members can receive a Level 2 charger at no cost, and in exchange, agree to a schedule that charges their EV in off-peak hours to reduce peak power costs. Vandette first worked with WEC on an early version of PowerShift that marshaled members to use their hot water tanks as a source of stored energy that the Co-op could draw from to mitigate costs during peak power use periods. Even in 2018, the project assumed electric vehicle batteries would eventually replace water tanks as its storage focus; at this point in time, PowerShift is exclusively focused on EVs. WEC’s Director of Products & Services, Bill Powell, worked with Vandette on PowerShift before they became Co-op colleagues. Powell explained that they are still working to reach member EV drivers who are not enrolled in PowerShift: if many of those drivers charge during peak hours, it can drive up peak demand and increase WEC’s power supply costs. Meanwhile, vehicle-to-grid experiments across the globe are testing how micro-utility tech interacts with EV owner behavior.

“This stuff is here faster than we imagined,” Vandette said cheerfully. The electric industry experienced modest levels of change between 1939, when the Co-op was founded, and 2009, when Vandette was starting his career. Then, he pointed out, “electric vehicles and batteries at home were just dreams.” But over those past 15 years, the climate emergency has intensified while tech has rapidly evolved. Vandette explained, “Innovation is necessary, because the future is here. There’s a balance to be struck between innovation–and the complexities that come with changes like rate design and the integration of battery storage–and regulation, which is inherently not innovative. How do we act in the regulatory interest, and our own member-owned utility’s interest, and generally, in the interest of our environment?”

He was asking himself those questions when he worked with WEC on PowerShift five years ago. “I was ‘behind-the-meter’, working on the demand side of the equation, and I thought, I need to be on the other side of this sometime in the future,” he said. 

Public power, cooperative control

Vandette is a WEC member himself: he lives in a farmhouse in Middlesex with his wife and their nine-month-old child. He may be familiar to fellow members from his bid to serve on the Co-op’s Board of Directors in 2022, when he received the fourth-highest number of votes (the top three vote-getters are seated) in an election with the largest and most competitive field in recent memory. It was Vandette’s first attempt, and he and his wife had only just moved to Middlesex from Burlington the year before. Other Directors noticed his resume and showing in the election; President Steve Knowlton reached out to Vandette personally to encourage him to stay involved. Within the daily work of WEC, several staffers already knew Vandette well as a colleague in the energy efficiency community. Meanwhile, Vandette was developing a new interest to complement economics and environment: the convergence of local governance with public power.

General Manager Louis Porter was impressed with this in Vandette’s interview. When Vandette was asked why he was interested in the new position, Porter remembered, “JJ said he wanted to see the impact of his work in the community he lived in and was a part of. As a Washington Electric member, he wanted to see the results of his work. I can’t imagine a better response for anyone working in a co-op of any kind, but particularly WEC.”

Shortly before Vandette worked with WEC on PowerShift, he attended the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State. He went, he said, to learn about the language and operations of utilities–in order to develop programs, like PowerShift, that bridged the missions of both Efficiency Vermont and the Co-op, as well as other electric utilities. But the institute also sharpened Vandette’s interest in public power. He discovered that he valued what differentiates public power from private power: “it’s about local control, and local cooperative control,” he explained. And it wasn’t long after that that he moved onto WEC lines and ran for the Board.

Then, when he introduced himself to neighbors in Middlesex and throughout WEC territory, seeking signatures for his candidacy, he learned a lot about the Co-op from fellow members’ perspective: not least of which was that the house he lived in was formerly owned by founding members of the Co-op, and was 101 years old when it was finally connected to a power line in 1939. “WEC’s membership is a very tuned-in demographic,” Vandette said respectfully. “There’s a sense of community here: we’re all in it together, literally connected by the wire.”

The sense of community really connected for him, he said, when he and his wife were out of state during the winter storm in the last days of 2022. No sooner had he received an outage alert on his phone, he said, than a neighbor called, on the way over to make a fire to keep their pipes from freezing. Then another neighbor called. Vandette was powerfully moved by his neighbors’ care.

Vandette is still brand-new to the Co-op, in a brand-new position. He’s still understanding the scope of his job, and while he expects the first few years of work to be mostly about fitting projects within the system behind the scenes, he looks forward to opportunities to talk with members, like at the Annual Meeting coming up in early May. After all, WEC members are his neighbors.

When Vandette thinks about this, he thinks about a point about cooperatives he’s heard from Porter, Knowlton, and Vermont Electric Co-op GM Rebecca Towne: “They all say reliability, affordability, and equity are priorities to balance. In all this work, with the ‘high water floats all boats’ mentality, I’m looking at how everyone will benefit,” he said. “A lot of my job will require keeping rate impacts top-of-mind. The more affordable rates are, the better we’ll all be.”

These days, Vandette wakes up early, before his baby, to cross-country ski before dawn. “I get up in the morning thinking about how do I get dollars to support the Co-op’s goals? How do we get as much funding as possible for projects that would otherwise be funded by rate increases? Who do we work with as partners on these projects to benefit members?” He thinks about projects with potential or already in motion, like upgrading meters and substations. “I have 100 questions as the curious new guy,” he said, but he has his mandate: “Seize new opportunities, and keep energy affordability as a primary focus.”