Vision, Passion and Energy Cited as Attributes Leading to Marc Gerken’s Success
By Michele Lemmon, Manager of Public Relations & Digital Media, American Municipal Power, Inc. (AMP)
Only rarely does someone come along who has the vision, passion and energy of Marc S. Gerken, PE, a longtime advocate for hydropower at the state, regional and national levels.
Gerken, who served as president and CEO of American Municipal Power, Inc., from 2000 until his retirement in early 2020, led AMP through a period of growth and evolution that included one of the largest deployments of new run-of-the-river hydropower generation in the United States.
NHA is honoring Gerken with the 2020 Dr. Kenneth Henwood Award, the highest individual honor the association bestows. Gerken accepted the award virtually on April 29, 2021, during Waterpower Week conference, owned and organized by NHA.
When Gerken joined AMP in 1998 as vice president of business operations, the non–profit wholesale power supplier and services provider had 80 members. By 2020, the organization had grown to 135 members in nine states.
While leading AMP, Gerken built a national reputation and was a Board leader for a number of national groups, including the American Public Power Association, The Energy Authority, Hometown Connections, the Large Public Power Council and the National Hydropower Association (NHA).
For NHA, Gerken served on the Board of Directors from 2009 to 2020, chaired the Board from 2013 to 2015, and was co-chair of NHA’s CEO Council from 2015 to 2018.
“Marc is a very deserving recipient of NHA’s highest award,” said Jolene Thompson, who succeeded Gerken as AMP president and CEO in April 2020. “The AMP Board and staff congratulate Marc for his many contributions to the industry and his longstanding leadership. Marc’s experience with hydropower dates back to a leadership role as a member of our Board when AMP was undertaking our first hydropower project in the late 1990s and extends through his role as CEO, where he oversaw the development of four new hydropower projects and served as a strong advocate for hydropower and regulatory reforms to benefit the resource.”
Focusing on Needed Regulatory Improvements
Gerken made improving the licensing and relicensing of hydropower facilities a priority. During his tenure at AMP, he testified before Congressional committees and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In 2017, testimony before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about the need to streamline and improve hydropower permitting and licensing, he noted the benefits of hydropower but explained the difficulty in getting such resources permitted:
“Hydropower faces an extremely arduous approval process,” Gerken told the subcommittee. “The time from initial application to final approval from regulatory agencies can best be described as a gauntlet, typically taking a decade and costing millions of dollars.”
Power Supply Growth and Evolution
Gerken drew on his decades of experience for that testimony. He had previously served on the AMP Board of Trustees (1995-98), chairing the committee that oversaw the development and construction of the Ohio Municipal Electric Generation Agency Joint Venture 5, the 42-megawatt run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant on the Belleville Locks and Dam on the Ohio River. The Belleville Hydroelectric Plant, which began commercial operation in 1999, is owned by 42 AMP member communities through the joint venture. On Dec. 10, 2018, Belleville produced its 5-millionth net megawatt hour delivered to participating communities, hitting that goal nine months sooner than projected. In 2020, Belleville marked its 21st year in service and, by the end of 2020, had generated 5,494,083 MWh.
When Gerken became CEO in 2000, the Belleville project was still only the organization’s second generating asset. The other was the 213-MW Richard H. Gorsuch Generating Station, a coal-fired plant in southeast Ohio that AMP purchased in 1987 and retired in 2010.
“When I took over, we were going from market-based rates to a commodity-based, open-market structure. And we were seeing where the organized markets, their prices were really starting to track up,” Gerken told Columbus CEO magazine in an October 2019 article. “We were fairly asset-poor at the time, so our Board came up with a pretty strategic resource generation plan to diversify that portfolio.”
The AMP Board guided AMP toward developing a diverse generation asset plan designed to reduce members’ overexposure to a volatile wholesale power market. Under Gerken’s leadership, AMP constructed four run-of-the-river hydropower plants at existing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks and dams along the Ohio River in Kentucky and West Virginia. His experience in planning and executing large infrastructure projects proved valuable to the hydropower projects, which deliver about 313 MW of generation and consist of 11 hydro turbines.
“Marc led AMP’s power supply evolution from being generally market-based to asset-based, giving our members more ability to control power costs through generation assets that they own or control through AMP,” said Pam Sullivan, chief operating officer of AMP, president of AMP Transmission, LLC, and member of the NHA board of directors. “Changes in the wholesale power market led to significant growth in membership for AMP as more municipal electric systems sought our assistance in securing a predictable, reliable and diverse long-term power supply. Marc recognized the strategic value that hydropower represented as a long-term renewable energy option.”
The four hydro projects represent a long-term commitment to environmentally responsible generation:
- Meldahl Hydroelectric Plant, a three-unit, 105-MW facility, began commercial operation in April 2016 and was developed in partnership with the city of Hamilton (OH), an AMP member. Meldahl is the largest hydroelectric plant on the Ohio River. In connection with the development of the Meldahl Project, Hamilton agreed to sell — and AMP to purchase — a 48.6 percent undivided ownership interest in the Greenup Hydroelectric Plant, a 70.2-MW power plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.
- Willow Island Hydroelectric Plant, a two-unit, 44-MW facility, began full commercial operation in February 2016.
- Cannelton Hydroelectric Plant, a three-unit, 88-MW facility, began full commercial operation in June 2016.
- Smithland Hydroelectric Plant, a three-unit, 76-MW facility, achieved full commercial operation in 2017.
In addition to AMP’s development of hydroelectric generation, Gerken also led the organization as it developed a diverse, reliable energy portfolio that includes fossil–fuel as well as other renewable energy projects for its members and initiated new programs at AMP in the areas of, sustainability, transmission/RTO advocacy, technology and training.
While a member and co-chair of NHA’s CEO Council, Gerken encouraged support for the 2009 jobs study, which illustrated the job and economic benefits of hydro development and the need for hydro to be included with wind, solar and other technologies in policies promoting alternative energy.
“AMP evolved and grew considerably during Marc’s 20 years at the helm, and much of that growth was a direct result of his vision and energy,” Thompson said. “However, AMP and its members were not the only ones to benefit — his leadership helped spur NHA’s efforts to raise the profile for hydropower at various levels.”