After holding various senior management positions in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and now in the private sector, Luis Reyes is better-versed about the energy industry then most people.
Mr. Reyes started as a reactor inspector for the NRC in 1978 and quickly rose through the ranks of the federal agency. He became the executive director of operations for the NRC in 2004, where he managed the day-to-day operations of the agency with more than 4,000 employees.
He retired from the NRC in 2011 after 33 years of dedicated public service and became a consultant to the nuclear energy industry. Just this year he was elected to the board of directors for FirstEnergy Corp., based Akron, Ohio. The company's stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Mr. Reyes was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and went on to earn a bachelors of science in electrical engineering and a masters in nuclear engineering from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.
While Mr. Reyes is a big supporter of nuclear power, he says energy companies must be diversified to get their power, from a variety of sources, including natural gas, wind and solar.
We caught up with Mr. Reyes while he was in Puerto Rico for a family wedding.
HispanicBusiness: Whats your proudest accomplishment being in the industry?
Luis Reyes: I think when I was the chief operating officer, which is called executive director for the operation for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A couple of things come to mind, one was the NRC, which I don't usually use the initials, the NRC was the best place to work in the federal government and has remained so even after I retired. At that time, and I think its true today, it is the only government agency that is allowed to use the Hispanic Diversity company logo. I think as the executive of the company that's probably my biggest accomplishment.
I did have the opportunity on the nuclear side, we hosted president Bush at a nuclear power plant and I had the opportunity to meet with the president of the United States at a nuclear power plant. That was a memorable moment.
HB: Why is diversity important to a company, especially in the boardroom?
LR: Lets use FirstEnergy as an example. If you look at the board of FirstEnergy, Dr. (Carol) Cartwright, is a female; the board holds two minority males, including me; and we have a minority female.
I think as youre making decisions at the level, having the perspective of cultural diversity and experience of diversity, provides the board with a different dimension in those decisions. This is a service company and we have a lot of customers, the people on the board not only have to bring their technical expertise but their life experiences. Diversity, I think, helps make it a better decision when you are trying to make decisions.
HB: What advice do you have for young Hispanics who are going into the energy industry?
LR: I think with any field, you first have to have a good, sound understanding of the subject matter so I would strongly recommend you do get that full background behind you so you can participate actively in the field.
The second would be, try to always think of the next level. I mentor people and I say, Hey, if you understand what the next level of the organization needs, its much better for you to support the product and be more effective.
If you understand what is needed at the next level above you, I think it helps you provide a better product because you understand why they need it. I always try to do that. I always find that helps me to provide a better product and try to think of it from their point of view.
HB: What do you think is needed for a renaissance of the nuclear power industry in the U.S.?
LR: The generation of electricity of any kind, you know, first you need a demand of the product. You cant produce something nobody needs. One of the enablers is the economy needs to get back on track. Once you have the demand with the various sources to provide electrical energy, and then you look at the environmental considerations, you pretty quickly come back to such things as solar, wind and nuclear because burning fossil fuels has a lot of impact on the environment.
You have to have nuclear or something that provides the base electrical energy, because as I tell everybody: If you need to go to the hospital in the middle of the night and they have to do an EKG to save your life and there is no daylight and there is no wind, how are you going to get that electrical energy? People really take a pause and think. Your options are limited, so nuclear is clearly an option there.
I think its going to have a role with the new generation of reactors that are being built in South Carolina and Georgia. Those plants are really significant as far as safety and are very efficient. I think it's going to happen. But again, if we dont have the demand for electricity, its difficult to say that its going to be a renaissance on the nuclear front.
HB: Do you see a day when more electricity will come from alternative rather than traditional sources such as natural gas and coal?
LR: First of all, if you are generating electricity you really need to diversify your whole portfolio. What you don't want is one particular source, because if there is a significant change then you really affect the intrinsic cost of the generation. If you look at natural gas, for example, historically there have been significant swings in prices, there has been quite a bit of volatility.
What you need, just like an investment portfolio for your retirees, you need to balance your sources. Natural gas prices are very attractive now and has less impact to the environment than coal, eventually there is going to be changes to the prices. Like everything else, it's based on demand; especially if we sell natural gas to other countries, the price is going to go up. So you have the price competition.
So we know (alternative sources) is going to play a significant part but you just cant get out the base load generation that nuclear and natural gas are going to contribute. So I think the answer is all of the above.
HB: What do you consider a successful day for FirstEnergy?
LR: First of all, its a commodity we cant live without. If you look at the advances in medicine, if you look at the things we do today, Im calling you from a cell phone, so you need electricity as a commodity. A successful day with that commodity is reliability, its available and its affordable. Producing that commodity reliably and at an affordable price and then nowadays we want to make sure it doesnt affect the environment. That goes to the affordable price and you have to put that into the equation.
HB: Boards of directors appear to be much more active in companies then they used to be. Why the change?
LR: There has been a change, the challenges to businesses are more. There is a lot more transparency on those decisions the companies now have to explain to their shareholders the customers, in this case, and public utilities commission what they do and what they do behind it.
No question directors are more involved today. I can tell you in the nuclear business if you look back they did not have people that had hands-on experience in the nuclear field. That has changed through the years, just like a lot of companies. The reason being is that the board of directors are really more involved, more active than before in the details of the business.
HB: Is there anything you would like to add?
LR: If were counseling a new generation, especially of Hispanics, on how to succeed, I have been very lucky and successful both in government and private industry. The contributors to those are very similar. If you are looking for a career in government or public service, or private industry, the attributes we talk about, you have to have a technical, sound background on the subject matter. You have to think of the next level, those things are very good.