Hydropower leaders: Herbie Johnson

As part of a series of interviews profiling leading Fellows of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), we meet Herbie Johnson, General Manager at Southern Company and former President of the National Hydropower Association (NHA).    

Herbie Johnson is General Manager at Southern Company, where he oversees 32 hydroelectric projects with a capacity of more than 2,600 MW. In September 2019 he was elected to serve on IHA’s Board, after serving two years as President of the National Hydropower Association (NHA) in the U.S. from 2017 to 2019. He continues through, his various roles, to help shape the agenda for the industry.

Herbie says one of the highlights of his career was when, in his capacity as NHA President, he had a chance to testify before the U.S. Congress about the efficiency of the licensing process. It gave him the opportunity to share ideas on how to keep the process efficient for the next hundred years.

“We work on legislation to keep the process of licencing and relicencing our hydroelectric plants, not only for Alabama Power Company [a subsidiary of Southern Company], but across the U.S., as efficient as possible, so it doesn’t impact ratepayers and our stakeholders in a negative manner,” says Herbie. The opportunity to work in Washington, D.C. and manage that process, as well as manage that organisation as the President, has been a dream come true for me.”

Having worked at Southern Company for more than 25 years, Herbie says it’s the “hundred-year plan” that he really enjoys about his job. “When I interact with our communities and our stakeholders, when I talk to our current employees or the young employee we’re going to hire, I want them to know our hydro plants are ‘forever assets’ and that we’ve got a plan for the next 100 years,” he says.

“Several of our dams are already over 100 years old. We want people to know that we’re already thinking about how we’re going to preserve these assets with sound engineering and innovation.”


Staff sergeant to hydrologist

Despite his success, Herbie admits he did not always envision a career in the hydropower industry. After graduating from high school, Herbie went into the military and served in the U.S. Air Force and the Alabama Air National Guard for six years. After achieving the rank of staff sergeant, Herbie sought a university education and ultimately decided on a degree in civil engineering at Auburn University.

“My father and grandfather built houses, so I always had an interest in construction,” Herbie says. “That ultimately led me to civil engineering.”

On the completion of his degree, Herbie started as a hydrologist in Alabama Power Company. “I went into the plants and learned how they operate and what it takes from a team of people to keep the plant running,” he says. “This included everything from dam safety to keeping the lights on, how to keep the water regulated, and how to make sure we meet state laws and regulations.”

Soon enough, Herbie had the chance to start managing a dam as a superintendent at Thurlow Dam in Tallassee. “From there, it just progressed. I managed other plants within our system and did some large construction projects, proving the ability to transfer my skills of civil and project management to large-scale projects,” he says. “That gave me the opportunity to come back into our hydro organisation as the General Manager and support the great team of people that keeps our hydro fleet running.”


Passing down “tribal” stories

He credits his mentors, Mike Akridge and Gene Allison, both ex-hydro general managers at Southern Company, as great influences throughout his career. Both helped him with knowledge transfer, lessons learned, and passed down “tribal” stories that were critical parts of the hydro industry and Southern Company. “The knowledge I gained from them are stepping stones for the leaders that will follow me,” Herbie says.

Knowledge-sharing is vital for Herbie and he feels honoured at the opportunity to serve on the IHA Board.

“The importance of IHA will continue to rise as the energy markets begin to value the robustness and flexibility of hydro resources,” Herbie says, adding that being a part of the Association offers many benefits.

“IHA members have access to tools, forums and subject matter experts that can open avenues for success as we integrate current and future hydro resources into the energy industry,” he says.

“The globalisation of the industry presents a unique set of challenges we didn’t face 20 years ago, and we need to work together to continue to have quality products that can be delivered in a timely manner to keep us competitive as a long-term asset in our energy markets of today and the future.”

Find out how to become a Fellow of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) here.

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