Interview with PACWorld guru Charles Henville

PAC World:  When and where were you born?
C.H.:  I was born in 1948 in Basseterre, St. Kitts, a small Caribbean island. At the time it was a British colony, now part of the independent country of St. Kitts and Nevis.

PAC World:   Where did you go to school?
C.H.:  I went to variety of schools, elementary school in Grenada, and boarding secondary schools in Jamaica and England. From age 7 to 9, I was taught by a governess in Belize (British Honduras at the time).  School changes were a result of my father moving around the Caribbean while working for the British Colonial Civil Service.

PAC World: Do you remember anything from your childhood that you think contributed to you becoming an engineer? 
C.H.:  I enjoyed playing with meccano and building crystal sets and transistor radios. Stringing radio antennae from rooftops helped me decide not to be a roofer.

PAC World:   Did you have any interests related to science while you were in school?
C.H.:  At age 13 I had to choose between arts and sciences. I chose the sciences. This was not entirely the right choice since I lost an opportunity to advance my painting skills.

PAC World:  Why did you decide to continue your education in engineering?
C.H.:   The science stream provided two apparent benefits that turned out to be illusionary:

  • The opportunity to avoid essay type questions in tests. 2+2=4 is much easier to write than an explanation as to why Henry VIII had six wives. Later on in life I realized that you also had to write clear explanations of your technical ideas.
  • The simplicity of physical laws compared to human behavior. I thought engineering was all about understanding physical laws. Later I learned that you always have to work and play with other people; so understanding human behavior is equally important.

PAC World:  How did you end up studying in Cambridge University?
C.H:  I thought it was the best university in every subject and nothing has changed my opinion since. Although I did well at high school in Jamaica, the educational opportunities were better in England. I repeated the final year of high school in England to improve my grades and successfully wrote the entrance examination for Cambridge.
My father was a lawyer; so he influenced me to go to Trinity Hall, a college that produced many excellent lawyers. Luckily most of the formal instructions was through the Engineering Faculty, though Trinity Hall provided excellent tutorial assistance.

PAC World:   Did you study electric power systems or protection while in college?
C.H.:  In the first two years I completed the Mechanical Sciences Tripos that included electrical, mechanical and civil engineering. In the final year I completed the Electrical Sciences Tripos that covered all aspects of electrical engineering including power systems and a course in protection. Cambridge University at that time did not award BSc or BASc; so I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

PAC World:  Was there any professor that helped you select you future career path?
C.H:  Interestingly, my professor in power system protection was Dr. Peter McLaren, who became my friend and colleague in the IEEE Power System Relaying Committee some twenty five years later. However my career path was entirely fortuitous. I wanted a job that allowed me to come home every night to be with my family. The BC Hydro System Protection Department was the first to offer me an office job that allowed me to stop all the travelling required by the Commissioning Department.

PAC World:   Did you have any other interests while in Cambridge?
C.H.:   Rowing was my non-academic activity. I never made the University Boat to row against Oxford, but I rowed in the Trinity Hall First Eight that taught me the value of hard work and team work.

PAC World:   What was your first job?
C.H.: I was a professional engineering apprentice with a large English power equipment manufacturer. In my first year on the factory floor, I learned how to make tea and swear! However, I also observed how large turbine generators and transformers were manufactured and tested.

PAC World:  What do you think is the importance of working as a commissioning engineer early in your career?
C.H.:  It gave me opportunities to do hands on construction and testing work with electrical power equipment and allowed me to understand the important factors in their installation and operation. This supplemented what I had learned in the factory about power equipment manufacturing.

PAC World:  Is there any event from this time that you would never forget?
C.H.:  I commissioned gas turbine compressors on the Trans Canada Pipeline. Winter in Saskatchewan is unforgettable, no matter how hard you try.

PAC World:   Why did you move from the UK to Canada?
C.H.: At the end of the Trans Canada Pipeline job, I took the train across the prairies to Vancouver and found that not all of Canada was cold in winter. Several years later, I was told that my next commissioning job could be in a power station in Northern Ireland. This was in 1974, during the “troubles” when there were bombings in power stations there. This was not a particularly attractive prospect. I took a commissioning job opportunity with BC Hydro instead and in Vancouver, I met and married a lady from Northern Ireland. A much more attractive prospect!

PAC World:   How did you become a system protection engineer?
C.H.: Through good fortune (as mentioned above, regarding university professors).

PAC World:  What is the most challenging project that you worked on at BC Hydro?
C.H.:  It was the first application of microprocessor based relaying on a 500 kV transmission line. The project required high speed, and unusually sensitive transmission line protection with single phase tripping and reclosing with series capacitors. The protection system was tested at the supplier’s factory, with firmware revisions every few days to meet the performance specifications. Eventually the protection went into service with very few problems during its first 20 years of operation.

PAC World:  System Integrity Protection Schemes (SIPS) are one of the most critical protection applications due to its impact on the stability of the system. Why did you start working on such projects?
C.H.: BC Hydro had relied on these schemes since the 1960’s to reliably bring power from remote hydroelectric sources to the load center. In the 1990’s the North American reliability regulators, particularly the Western Systems Coordinating Council (WSCC then, but now the WECC) started taking an interest in the reliable application of these schemes, since their performance could affect many interconnected systems. I had to present some SIPS changes that BC Hydro planned to the WSCC RAS

Reliability Task Force, and realized the wide area impact of these schemes. The benefits and risks of these schemes are so large, their future applications are boundless and perilous.

PAC World:  Why did you start writing papers?
C.H.:  I had the opportunity to work with co-authors to prepare and present a paper on back to back switching of shunt capacitors to the Canadian Electrical Association in 1983. During the presentation session, I realized the opportunity for personal learning while sharing your own experience with other similar groups and individuals.

PAC World:  What has been the impact of participating in meetings and conferences on your development as a protection engineer?
C.H.:  The IEEE Power System Relaying Committee (PSRC) meeting has been the most rewarding to me in learning how to work in volunteer teams to produce results more valuable than the sum of individual contributions. I developed further as a protection engineer by contributing and defending my contributions to peers than by mere listening at conferences. Because committee meeting participation is more regular, the personal friendships developed through the meetings are often deeper than those developed at conferences. I have had the opportunity to develop friendships with many of the gurus that PAC World has already presented and many that I hope you will present.

PAC World: When and why did you join the IEEE?
C.H.:  In 1988 the local IEEE Vancouver Section needed a volunteer to run the continuing education activity. Since I was pursuing a master of engineering degree at the time, it was mutually beneficial for me to organize the IEEE coordination of University of British Columbia extra mural courses for practicing engineers. Shortly after that, my managers at BC Hydro supported my participation in the PSRC. Work in that Committee encouraged my continued membership.

PAC World:  Why do you think it is important for utility engineers to be involved in development of standards and reports?
C.H.:  A commonly held idea is that it strengthens learning and understanding of industry standards and practices. However, I believe that is only part of the importance. The other, perhaps more important, is to validate one’s own utility practices by having them incorporated into industry accepted standards and reports.
The individual engineer’s involvement influences these standards for their sponsor’s benefit. I believe this is why manufacturers support their staff participation in these activities.  I think that many utilities do not understand the value returned to them in terms of influencing the industry to meet their business needs by supporting participation of their engineers.
The business case needs to be explained to management by the engineers themselves.

PAC World: You started your own company ten years ago. How do you compare working for yourself with working for a major utility?
C.H.: Leaving a major utility employer gives me the freedom to expand my horizons. I have participated in projects with other utilities and consultants as well as in academic activities.
This has deepened my appreciation for the variations in practices in the application and setting of protective relays. However, 30 years with a single utility provided a background in power systems planning and operation that strengthened my ability to provide services to other utilities.

PAC World:  You have been in many roles in the IEEE PES Power System Relaying Committee and the IEEE PES. What makes you volunteer for this kind of work?
C.H:  It’s partly the enjoyment of personal relationships and partly the excitement of professional interaction with smart engineers. I have come to realize the truth of the old adage that you only receive to the extent that you give.

PAC World:  What do you think about the role that PSRC plays in our industry?
C.H.:  The committee is sufficiently modest that its value to the power industry is under appreciated. It has developed many guides and reports that can be used to improve the reliability of power systems. Many of them are freely available from its website ( and may be accessed at will and may be used to educate protective relaying engineers or influence their practices. An important limitation is that it is primarily focused on North America, because of limited international participation. It is my hope that the PSRC will increase its cooperation with related international entities and vice versa. I also hope that the PSRC will increase its interaction with other committees in the IEEE Power and Energy Society and with other related IEEE societies.

PAC World:  You have close to half a century experience in electric power and power systems protection. How do you share your knowledge?
C.H.:  My primary focus now is academic teaching and industrial training activities. During any teaching or training activity, I usually learn as well. Learning from the students’ experience expands the instructor’s knowledge

PAC World:  What do you think is important for a protection engineer’s development?
C.H.:  Several things:

  • Having a mentor to share their experience on the job. My mentor was Karl Engelhardt who patiently shared his experience with me for my benefit
  • Hands on knowledge about the physical equipment that is being protected. Could be gained from field or factory work
  • Understanding of power systems phenomena under normal and short circuit conditions and abnormal operations. This can be partly gained from computer simulations. However, an equally important avenue is analysis and study of power system disturbances using information nowadays widely available from records captured by digital protection systems
  • Learning how protection systems are designed, maintained and operated. This is gained primarily from experience in the business

PAC World:  What do you consider the biggest challenge in your professional career?
C.H.:  To have the contributions of power engineers recognized by industry and society.

PAC World:  What do you consider your most exciting professional experience?
C.H.:  Participating in the advent of microprocessor relaying applications on the power system. The changes to traditional practices turned our business upside down.

 PAC World:  And what about your most important personal experience?
C.H.:  Participating in the growth of a loving family. I have been blessed with a beautiful and understanding wife and three wonderful children who have together made my life complete. 

PAC World:  During your career you were involved in the application of electromechanical, solid state and microprocessor based protection relays. What do you think about the transition from one technology to another in a large utility?
C.H.:  Engineers are a most conservative bunch, and utility engineers are more so. Inertia in that environment is huge. The benefits of solid state analog protection technology were insufficient to overcome that inertia. Together with the challenges of the application of electronic technology, the scope and life of solid state analog protection technology was mercifully limited. The benefits that came from the information associated with numerical protection systems along with all the other features accelerated their acceptance to a degree which I would have thought to be have been unimaginable in the utility protection engineering environment. Of course the new technologies affected all other aspects of our life, so the transition within a large utility was only a small part of the digital revolution. Nevertheless, it was the most important change in my professional experience.

PAC World:  Today we are a part of the transition from hard wired protection and control systems to IEC 61850 communications based fully digital substations. What is your opinion about it, the benefits and challenges?
C.H.:  I see the transition towards replacement of copper wires with IEC 61850 based communications as a continuation of the initial transition to replacement of analog protective relays.
The expansion of IEC 61850 applications has been slower in more fully developed power systems because the benefit/cost equation favors application at the greenfield substations that are more frequently built in expanding power systems. The station wide application of digital communications systems in brownfield extensions is more difficult than incremental application of numerical relays. Eventually however the benefits will be realized in Brownfield applications as well, but I cannot predict when.

PAC World:  What do you think we need to do to attract more young people to our industry?
C.H.:  They are already attracted, but the lack of jobs for inexperienced engineers is a serious deterrent to their entry. It seems to me that the industry does not want to risk investment in training young engineers. Eventually however, industry will have to invest in training and development as the experienced engineers age and retire.

PAC World:  What is the advice that you would give when you are in front of an audience of young people?
C.H.:  Be flexible and willing to move to get the experience you need to progress in your career. Employment and training does not come to you like it did to your parents. You have to go and get it wherever possible.

PAC World:  You have traveled to many countries. Do you have a favorite place to visit?
C.H.:  I like warm places due to my background in the Caribbean. Maui is the most relaxing and enjoyable place for recreation that I have visited. My backyard is nice too (mainly in the summer though).

PAC World:  Do you have a hobby or something that you like to do when you are not working?
C.H.:  I feel so lucky that protection engineering is my hobby as well as my work. IEEE volunteer work is also an important part of my life. Going for a walk with my wife in good weather is hard to beat too.

PAC World:  You have been married for 39 years. What is the secret?
C.H.:  Find a wife who loves you, and love her in return. I was lucky.

PAC World:  What is your favorite form of entertainment?
C.H.:  Reading mindless fiction in down times. However, if I am in a tropical location I love to be body surfing, snorkeling or swimming in the ocean.

PAC World:  Do you have any favorite food?
C.H.:  Fresh tropical fruits and Caribbean cooking.

PAC World:  Do you have a motto?
C.H.:  Listen carefully then speak clearly (I wish I could follow it more closely).  

Relion advanced protection & control.
BeijingSifang June 2016