The Guru

Interview with PAC World guru Bill Dicherson

PAC World:  When and where were you born?

B.D: I was born in Midland, Michigan, USA, in 1954.

PAC World:  Where did you go to school? 

B.D.: Midland Public Schools, graduating 1972 from Midland High School.

PAC World:  Did you have any specific interests while you were in school?  

B.D:  I took the math/science track. Being home to Dow Chemical Company, the Midland schools excelled especially in these areas.

PAC World:  Who do you think is the person that had the most influence on you when you were growing up?

B.D.: My parents; regarding my technical interests, I learned a lot from my father who was a PhD research chemist at Dow Chemical which was headquartered in Midland. He was also a radio operator in the US Army Air Corps in China in WWII. I learned a lot about radio and electronics from him, as well as chemistry and physics.

PAC World:  Do you remember anything from your childhood that contributed to you becoming an engineer?

B.D:  Pretty much my whole childhood was oriented around math and science. I remember borrowing a map of the Solar System from my first-grade teacher. I liked to take things apart and put them back together again, sometimes with modifications. I learned to build electronics things from the Radio Amateur’s Handbook; I used to build sound equipment in junior high and high school, some of which I sold to local rock bands. I built some transmitters along the way; one of which became an ‘underground radio station’ which two of my friends and I put on the air from April 6, 1968 (I was 13 years old at the time) until December 31, 1970. Listeners could call in and request songs; we logged over 30,000 calls in the 33 months we were on the air. We were basically the social media of our time, before there was such a thing.

PAC World:  Why did you decide to continue your education?

B.D.:  I liked to design and build things, and to do that in those days you would become an engineer. We had to write a ‘career report’ in 8th grade, mine was on electrical engineering.

PAC World:   How did you choose the university to go to?

B.D:  Washington University in St. Louis offered at the time a full scholarship called the Langsdorf Fellowship. 

That got me interested in the school. I did not win that fellowship; the guy who did became a good friend. He was a really smart fellow, but when his audio gear had problems, he’d ask me to fix it since he did not have strong applied knowledge.

One of the things I learned at university was that there were basically two groups of students there: one like me, guys who had been tearing things down and making things since we were kids; and another like my friend, comprising kids who had a strong academic background in math and science and thought engineering would be a good career path. I later found that the ones in the first group were the ones who ended up becoming career designers and builders. The others most often went into academia, management, marketing and sales, patent law. 

I chose to get my MBA at the University of Michigan because it was one of the top-rated business schools in the country, and I could go there for in-state tuition. Back then, Harvard and Stanford were tied for #1 and four schools, Penn (Wharton), Northwestern, MIT and Michigan were tied for #3. The other five were all private schools, some distance away, and it would have been a lot more expensive to go there. I paid for grad school myself, so cost/value was an important consideration.

PAC World:  Did you study electric power systems while in college? 

B.D.:  No, despite the efforts of my freshman year advisor, Dr. Lloyd R. Brown who was a power engineer. I knew I wanted to design and build electronics things, not mess around with poles and wires and generators. To this day I don’t really consider myself a power engineer but rather an engineer who found ways to apply the things I learned, much from communications theory to the power field.

PAC World:  Did you have any other interests while in university?

B.D.: Girlfriends, intramural sports, drama production which is the art of stagecraft, stage direction, sound and lighting.

PAC World:  What was your first job?

B.D.: First ever paying job – $2 an hour cash cutting grass, in 1967.

First job related to my career interests – building loudspeaker enclosures and other gadgets for local bands and musicians. My dad had a nice woodshop and a functional electronics lab, which made that possible. This was in the late 1960s.

First official job related to my career – Instructor in Electronics Technology at Delta College, a 2-year school in mid-Michigan, ca. 1975. First real career job – Marketing Engineer at Hewlett-Packard, 1979, in Palo Alto, California – Home of Silicon Valley.

PAC World: Why did you decide to work for a manufacturer and not in academia?? 

B.D.: I like building things, not writing papers. ‘Publish or perish’ didn’t attract me. 

PAC World:  What made you join Arbiter Systems?

B.D.:  It was an opportunity to run a business and do things ‘my way’ – we made our own mistakes, and took credit when things worked out. I would never have had this sort of opportunity at HP nor any other large company.

PAC World:  What made you interested in time synchronization?

B.D: Arbiter had a product, a GOES satellite clock, designed for the Navy and sold also to power companies. (GOES are the weather satellites, that produce high-altitude weather pictures from geosynchronous orbit; in the 1980s they had a timecode used primarily to synchronize data acquisition from remote sensors on the ground.) I was involved in designing a new line of satellite clocks based on the GPS system, this was in the late 1980s. They were the first reliable, cost-effective GPS clocks available to the power industry.

PAC World:  What was the most challenging task at the beginning?

B.D: Product definition: figuring what to leave in, and what to leave out. The product needed the features substation engineers wanted, at a modest price. My experience at HP in marketing helped a lot with that. It helped that I was thrifty; I’d learned how to design and build things when I had to buy parts with my own money, and I did not have a lot of that when I was a teenager. So, I was and pretty much still am an inveterate bargain hunter; the most economical way to solve the problem was also often the simplest and therefore the most reliable. 

PAC World: How did you become interested in synchrophasor measurements?

B.D: I’d attended a few power measurement conferences and had started attending PES-PSRC meetings at the suggestion of Bill Strang, at the time Arbiter’s sales rep in southern Illinois. When the time came in the late 1990s that I was designing our Model 1133A Power Sentinel, a GPS-synchronized, DSP-based power system measurement device, I realized that the combination of accurate DSP measurements and synchronization to UTC would let us build one of the first PMUs in the market. 

The very first one was Jay Murphy’s Macrodyne PMU, IIRC the model number was 1690. That one was based on the seminal work by Mark Adamiak, Arun Phadke and Jim Thorpe at IIRC Cornell and Virginia Tech. Arbiter’s 1133A was the second commercial PMU after Macrodyne and used completely different DSP techniques. Arun told me “It’s the best one” of all those he tested some years later.

PAC World:  What is the most satisfying moment during that time?

B.D.: Getting the DSP up and running on the first try. I used a TI TMS320C32 32-bit floating-point DSP. Much of the code was in C, but some startup code and low-latency, high-rate data processing was in assembly language. I missed an inversion in the current-channel signal chain and the current measurements were 180 degrees out of phase. Adding a minus sign fixed that.

A Polish professor, Dr. Zbigniew Hanzelka, found that the flicker measurements were off by a factor of two. The flicker standard defined AM modulation (a radio communications concept with which I was very familiar) differently than communications engineers do. Communications engineers use peak modulation; the flicker standard used peak-to-peak but did not specify that, and they differ by a factor of 2.

Changing one constant fixed that. Prof. Hanzelka was amazed that I sent him a new ROM (same day) which he plugged in to fix the ‘bug.’ He thought he’d need to send the unit from Poland to the USA for repair, a major hassle. He informed the IEC standard group of the ambiguity that he and I had discovered, and it was fixed on the next revision.

PAC World:  What do you think about the impact of inverter based distributed energy resources on the power grid?

B.D: In a grid designed to provide stability in part using the inertia of rotating machines, inertia-less inverters do present a potential issue. However, there is no reason inverters cannot be programmed to provide synthetic inertia, basically by slowing their response to frequency changes just like a generator does mechanically. As with all such things, the idea is pretty basic but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what the status of this is currently, but I know that a few years ago there were researchers looking into it.

PAC World:  Do you think that synchrophasor measurements can help? 

B.D.: Synchrophasors are a useful tool that enables wide-area measurements by providing a universal reference signal definition, synchronized to a common timescale (UTC). Generating synthetic inertia is a local challenge, rather than wide area. However, since synchrophasors basically allow a utility or RC to perform state measurement rather than state estimation, to the extent that that capability is useful in predicting grid responses to events, it could perhaps be used as an input to the relevant control methods to enhance stability. (Synthetic inertia has the potential of being far more flexible and adaptive than the fixed inertia of a machine.) I don’t know if any smart people are looking at this today, but I would not be surprised to find that they are. Similar benefits would accrue, by the way, regardless of whether inverter-based devices are part of the system or not.

PAC World:  What do you think about the use of IEC 61850 for synchrophasor communications?

B.D.:  My answer to this is similar to what Ed Schweitzer told you when you asked him a similar question. 61850 is one of many tools available to a power engineer. Whether it is the appropriate tool for a particular problem, as you like to say, Alex, “It all depends.”

In the case of synchrophasor communications, which since the main application of synchrophasors is wide-area measurement whereas IEC 61850 was originally conceived as an inside-the-substation protocol, I would think that 61850 might not be an optimal solution. I am aware that 61850 has evolved to inter-facility communications and that it now has routable protocols and so forth, so it might be usable.

The advantage it might have would presumably be interoperability with other system functions implemented on 61850 platforms. But I do not see any fundamental reason why 61850 would be better than other ways to get data from measurement points to control points in a wide-area system, and indeed it might be worse. It all depends.

PAC World: Do you believe in synchrophasors-based wide area protection?

B.D.: Yes. This is one of the primary power-system capabilities which is enabled by wide-area measurements, that cannot realistically be done any other way. Once you have the ability to see the system in real time, this presents the potential to identify trends before they seriously affect system stability.

Vahid Madani, formerly of PG&E, is a big believer in wide-area protection, and he convinced PG&E’s management to invest in system-wide synchrophasor measurement capability. 

I have great respect for Vahid, and if he thought building that capability was a good idea, I would say that is a strong confirmation that wide-area protection could be very beneficial. Time will tell how much reliability can be improved, but I do believe that the potential is there. Situational awareness is key to success, in many fields. Power system control is one of them, and synchrophasors add a new dimension to situational awareness in the grid.

PAC World:  What do you think is most important for a protection engineer’s development today?

B.D.: Well, as I said earlier, I don’t really consider myself a protection engineer. I’ve learned a bit of the vocabulary and what tools are needed, but actual protection engineering is not my strength. Which is OK, the world needs engineers with a wide range of skills. 

PAC World: You have been actively involved in the IEEE PES PSRC. What do you think is its impact on our industry?

B.D.: The main mission of PSRC is standards development. Standards are key whenever you have numerous entities sharing responsibility for operation of something complex. The power grid is an excellent example of this.

Without PSRC standards, and every entity doing things in its own way, the modern power grid would be uncontrollable and subject to regular, widespread blackouts. PSRC standards (and PSRC is one of the most prolific standards committees in IEEE) are an essential part of making sure that does not happen. At least not often. 

PAC World:  What do you believe is the best way to share your knowledge and experience with the new generation of protection engineers? 

B.D.: One day, if I actually do retire from engineering and management, I would consider teaching. I did that early in my career and enjoyed it. But I would look to find a school that was interested in having me teach things that often are not taught. Things like metrology (measurement science) and other fields that recognize that the world is still analog. 

PAC World: What do you consider the biggest challenge in your professional career? 

B.D.: Looking back, I think the largest professional challenge I had was when I was at Hewlett-Packard. I identified what I believed to be a large market opportunity for the division where I worked. We made signal generators, modulation analyzers, audio analyzers and related equipment that was primarily intended for use by 2-way radio manufacturers, in the R&D and production phases of their processes. 

Setting up a complete test system involved several expensive pieces of gear, along with a controller (small computer) and a bunch of accessories and cables.

I proposed to management that HP should consider making a one-box radio tester. Now there were several other products like this in the market, mainly targeted at service techs, and they were not really very good performance-wise. I suggested (with help from a co-worker) that this was a $90MM market, and that if HP did a good job, we could easily earn 30% of that and likely more.

There was stiff internal opposition to this idea, but the marketing manager pulled me aside and asked if I really thought that market was that big. I said yes, and probably larger; we had been conservative in our estimates because we did not yet participate in that market. Long story short, that product, the HP 8920A Transceiver Test Set, was very successful and to this day has a ‘cult following’ or fan club of people who own and love these units. The 8920A became the seminal product in a line of one-box test systems which eventually became the backbone of the division’s product line, as the division became the most profitable in the company.

PAC World: What do you consider your biggest professional accomplishment?

B.D.: Probably taking Arbiter Systems, which was 13 years old when we bought it in 1986, to a successful 50+ year old company. There have been many ups and downs along the way, and it has been challenging, but the reward has been worth the effort.

PAC World: You have received different awards throughout your career. Is there a specific one which is the most important to you?

B.D.:  Being elevated to Fellow grade in the IEEE. This is a challenging thing, because you have to be nominated by your peers and it happens in recognition of accomplishments made over a significant period of time, in most cases. Being recognized in this way by people I respect is very meaningful to me. 

PAC World: What do you think is your most important personal achievement?

B.D.: Finding, and staying married to, my wife of 32+ years.

PAC World: What do you think we need to do to attract more young people to our industry?

B.D.:  Power engineering is not a glamorous field. Finding people out of engineering schools who put power engineering as their career goal is difficult. I think it may make sense to find folks who may not come from the ‘traditional’ engineering school background and train them in real time.

For example, these days I do not think that I’d look to engineering schools to find people trained as analog circuit designers. Most of the emphasis in the universities these days is digital and computer stuff. I’d look for makers, young folks that have actually built things. Things that ‘do stuff’ – perhaps starting with a Raspberry Pi or Arduino and adding I/O boards to it, maybe even designing an I/O board of their own. The world is still analog, after all, and it always will be.

If I can find a curious mind, a person who wants to do something interesting, I can train that person to design analog circuits. Every bit as well as any university graduate. I designed transmitters and other devices when I was 13 years old, five years away from even going to university. My relevant formal training at that time was grade-8 math. Not even algebra, or trig, or geometry much less calculus. Curiosity is the important quality to look for. The same I think is true for power engineers.

PAC World:  What is the advice that you would give when you are in front of an audience of young people?

B.D.: Find smart, experienced people, and learn everything you can from them. When I was at HP, in the beginning of my technical career, I did that without really thinking about it much at the time; it was just something I enjoyed. There were so many subject-matter experts there, that there was an almost unlimited fount of knowledge for those willing to ask.

Most of those experts loved to share their knowledge with newer employees, as well. 

I learned a great deal from a gentleman who was HP Corporate’s top reliability engineer. I put that knowledge to use years later in designing products for Arbiter, which is one of the reasons why our clocks have a reputation for long-term reliability. Ivan Tapia, senior engineer for our distributor in Chile (whose first job was working at NASA’s Santiago tracking station, back in the Project Mercury days), said “I have never seen an Arbiter clock fail.”

PAC World:  You have traveled to many countries. Do you have a favorite place to visit?

B.D.: The Canadian Rockies, where I lived for many years. Stunning natural beauty. Also, Iceland, Icelandair has an ‘Iceland stopover’ program where you can stop in Reykjavik for up to 30 days on an itinerary between North America and Europe at no extra cost. 

It is a fascinating place, where you can actually go to a place where the earth’s crust is being born, the Mid-Atlantic Rift. Beautiful geysers (the word ‘geyser’ comes from Icelandic), geothermal power generation, waterfalls, volcanoes, Icelandic horses, the Blue Lagoon… friendly people and much to experience.

An interesting fact: in Iceland, the geothermal water is actually used at least three times before it is ‘spent.’ Initially to run a steam turbine for power generation, then to town to heat exchangers to generate domestic hot water (nobody in Reykjavik has a water heater or furnace, hot water comes from the street like cold water, in a pipe, and is used also for domestic heating); then to pipes under the roads and streets to melt snow and ice.

PAC World:  Do you have a hobby or something that you like to do when you are not working?

B.D.: I do a bit of gardening, and I like to cook.

PAC World:  How do you mix your professional and your personal life?

B.D.: I try to knock off work at 5 PM and spend the rest of the evening with my wife, sometimes entertaining family and friends. I do some work on the weekends, in exchange for taking time to shop, go to appointments etc. during the week. 

PAC World:  Do you ever consider retiring?

B.D.: Not in the normal sense. As I said earlier if I do retire from engineering and management at Arbiter, I might consider teaching. I would be bored sitting around, I’d have to find something to do to keep my brain active.

PAC World:  What is your favorite music?

B.D.: Classic rock from the 1960s-70s. Few forms of popular music have stood the test of time as well. That music is now about 50 years old – back in the 60s, nobody was still listening to music from 1910. I like classical music as well, though I don’t have as much expertise in it; it also has stood the test of time.

PAC World:  What is your favorite form of entertainment?

B.D.: I don’t know if you’d call it entertainment, but my wife and I like to keep up with current events watching some news in the evening, often followed by a movie or documentary on the tube. It can be interesting watching the wildlife in our back yard, especially in the months when the hummingbirds are around. Very interesting creatures, those. We put out a feeder to attract them.

PAC World:  Do you have any favorite food?

B.D.: I like many types of food; it would be hard to pick just one. Asian (Chinese, East Indian, Japanese, Thai…), Mexican/Latin American, Mediterranean/Continental (French, Italian, German, Hungarian, Middle Eastern…), standard American fare like grilled steak, fried or roasted chicken with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, also regional specialties like Cajun/Creole, for instance. Basically, I’m an omnivore.

PAC World:  Do you have a motto?

B.D.:  A favorite Scripture: “Whatever you do, do all things for the glory of God.”

 – 1 Corinthians 10:31b (NASB).

PAC World:  Is there a question that we forgot to ask you?

B.D.: Alex, you are amazingly thorough! I cannot think of much else to add.


Bill Dickerson is Chairman of the Board of Arbiter Systems, Inc. in Paso Robles, California. Bill received his BSEE from Washington University in St. Louis in 1975 and his master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan in 1979. Bill worked at Hewlett-Packard Company in Palo Alto, California and Spokane, Washington from 1979 until 1986, when he and his current partners bought Arbiter Systems, Inc. Arbiter Systems is the industry leader in precise measurements for power systems and in accurate, reliable timing products for the power industry. Bill was the original product designer for Arbiter’s GPS timing product line and the Model 1133A Power Sentinel, the industry’s most accurate Phasor Measurement Unit (PMU). Bill is a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc. and a member of the IEEE Instrumentation and Measurement and Power and Energy Societies and the IEEE Standards Association.