In the six years we have published Q&A, we have interviewed utility and service company presidents, engineers, regulators, lawyers, consultants, specialists of every sort who in one way or another have been involved in the natural gas and oil products pipeline business.
But none of them was ever more important than Kenneth Frederick (Fred) Wrenn, Jr., a former executive with Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. for 39 years and an independent consultant for 11 years.
We received a phone call from one of Mr. Wrenn’s daughters in Charleston, WV on May 29, seeking a way to let his many friends and former colleagues throughout the world know that he was being forced into an unexpected retirement because of his battle with cancer. He happened to have copies of P&GJ lying on his bed, so she picked up a copy and called us.
Our Q&A was designed for people like Mr. Wrenn. We sent a list of questions to his daughter and asked that she work with him generating his responses. You see, although he was seriously ill, the pipeline industry was a critical component of his life, and he wanted to leave a little something behind.
The responses were sent back to us on June 6 with his daughter saying that “he was very interested in answering your questions, and I know he felt honored that you thought people would be interested in his life.”
Mr. Wrenn’s condition deteriorated sharply over the next couple of days. On June 8 his daughter sent me his obituary. He was 70 years old.
This article is only part of Mr. Wrenn’s lasting legacy to the pipeline industry. Anyone who knew him can tell you that. He went to work for United Fuel Gas Company in Charleston in 1959 as a co-op engineer, and remained with United Fuel and its successor, Columbia Gas, until retirement in 1998. His positions included Chief Design Engineer of Compressor Stations, Manager of Compressor Applications, Director of Operations Engineering, Project Director, Vice President of Engineering, Vice President of Engineering and Construction and Vice President of Field Services. He was highly regarded within the natural gas transmission industry for expertise in gas compression applications, design, construction, operations and maintenance. After retirement, he operated his own consulting firm, Wrentech Services LLC.
He was co-founder and a member of the Gas/Electric Partnership of the Electric Power Institute, as well as a past member of the Executive Committee and Research Planning Task Group of the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), Program Advisory Committee of the Gas Research Institute, Environment, Safety and Operations Committee of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and Gas Machinery Research Committee (GMRC) of the Southern Gas Association.
“Fred was a great friend and supporter of GMRC’s research program. Even after his retirement, he continued to stay in touch and participate as often as he was able. He will be missed.” – Marsha Short, GMRC Vice President.
“He was committed to the PRCI program and served on our Compressor Technical Committee for several years. When the Office of Pipeline Safety began its current, robust research program in 2003, utilizing the peer review process for both project selection and project review and approval, PRCI nominated Fred to be an industry representative on their peer review panel. He was selected and did an excellent job due largely to his long and distinguished record in the industry, his company, and PRCI. For us, he was certainly one of the iconic figures in the compressor field.” – George Tenley, PRCI President.
Following is our interview with Mr. Wrenn.
P&GJ: Where did you grow up, attend school, and what were your interests as a child?
Wrenn: I grew up in Charleston, WV and have lived two doors down from my childhood home for the past 40 years. As a child, I loved anything mechanical and how it worked or functioned – which meant I took a lot of things apart. My grandfather and father were mechanically inclined. When I was in elementary school, I was focused on engineering of a different sort and was fascinated with trains. Fortunately, I lived one block from C&O railroad tracks and got my fill of them. Mechanical engineering was a natural for me.
P&GJ: Why did you decide on a career in the energy industry?
Wrenn: I went into energy because Columbia Gas had its beginnings as United Fuel Gas Company in Charleston, and I wanted to stay there. The University of Cincinnati had a good mechanical engineering co-op program – I could go to school part time and work part time – and I co-opted as engineer in United Fuel’s compressor department. This led to my first job in June 1959 as an engineer. Thirty-nine years later, I retired as Columbia Gas Transmission’s Vice President Field Services.
P&GJ: What are some of the ways that the business has changed since you started out?
Wrenn: The current emphasis on fuel efficiency and environmental concerns is a fairly dramatic change for the industry. The environmental issues we have today weren’t nearly as pressing as 50 years ago. We had more flexibility to employ a wider range of gas compression strategies early on. And certainly there were a higher number of people to do the design work. We didn’t use calculators and computer models; we worked the computations by hand. It has been fascinating to watch the technology advance to automate this aspect of engineering design.
P&GJ: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your long career with Columbia?
Wrenn: One of the greatest challenges was finding qualified engineering personnel to work in Charleston, WV, when many of the best and brightest were drawn to the oil and gas industry centered in Houston, TX. Aside from personnel, though, a significant challenge was the need to innovate to achieve results. Innovation has been crucial to this industry. The changing business climate in the 1990s posed one of the greatest threats, especially when Columbia Gas Transmission filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. This was necessary to alter gas purchase contracts which were unresponsive to the business climate. I think many of us saw the reorganization as an opportunity for technology and process improvements.
P&GJ: What parts of your work did you enjoy the most? What was it about the compression sector that grabbed your attention?
Wrenn: I always enjoyed the process of evaluating alternative strategies to move gas effectively and efficiently. It goes back to my appreciation for machinery and applying machines to the work. With gas compression, there are a lot of moving pieces, and things have to work well together. Design and construction were my favorite parts, and I did the detailed design and construction work from the ’60s through the ’90s.
P&GJ: What do you feel were your greatest contributions to Columbia Gas Transmission, and to the industry, perhaps in regards to technology and research?
Wrenn: I believe that if I’ve made a contribution it is in finding unique ways to overcome technology and environmental challenges. In the early 1990s Columbia Gas Transmission prepared a filing before the FERC to install three 3,700 horsepower gas engine-driven compression units at a new grassroots facility near the town of Rutledge in Harford County, MD. Because of the perceived impact on the environment, the local community mounted a vigorous campaign against its construction. The various local and community groups that opposed the project filed an injunction until an alternative to the original design – which they deemed too intrusive – could be found. The project was effectively stopped.
In 1992, Columbia Gas Transmission engineering personnel learned of a new compressor technology (MOPICO) using electric motor-driven units which had more of the attributes the Rutledge community desired. These units possessed a much smaller footprint, were quiet and could be worked into a less visually obtrusive design. But more importantly, it could accomplish the compression required. A prototype MOPICO unit had been installed in Billingsly, LA and we decided to adapt it for the Rutledge project. Once we had demonstrated to the community that the compressor station could be designed to meet its criteria, the injunction was lifted, and the project proceeded. This project ranked high on the list of innovative ways to compress natural gas to meet a wide range of environmental and community challenges.
P&GJ: With the growing emphasis on new and improved compression equipment, why is the industry faced with a decline in expertise in this critical area?
Wrenn: Companies have elected to outsource engineering rather than grow it internally. This has reduced the number of positions available. It makes sense for college students to concentrate on gaining skills in areas where employment opportunities are greater, but the effect is that as the engineers with experience retire, there is an increasing knowledge gap. The opportunity now is for young engineers to aggressively seek mentors – and for the “old guard” to be willing to share their knowledge and experience.
P&GJ: What do you think will be the next important trend we’ll see in the gas compression field or pipeline research in general?
Wrenn: One of the more important trends we’ll see in the gas compression or pipeline facility field is the use of new high-temperature materials and composites in the manufacturing process. This will contribute to more efficient machine performance. The use of nano-technology in the control systems is also a trend. Anything that will decrease the footprint of compression facilities, and lessen their impact on the environment and communities, will continue to gain ground.
P&GJ: Are consultants more likely to fill the pipeline operator’s need for expert help in the future and is this a good thing?
Wrenn: To some extent, the use of consultants is an advantage when it comes to filling a pipeline operator’s needs, because the consultant has access to a broad range of tools and techniques for addressing design and construction challenges. For example, a gas turbine application may be more thoroughly explored and evaluated if you have access to the consultant’s field of expertise which may cover a number of years. I think it wise, though, to start finding ways to transfer valuable knowledge and experience between generations of engineers.
P&GJ: During your lengthy career, are there any particular people or situations that left a lasting impression?
Wrenn: During the ’70s, Bland Osborne and Bob Beecher were senior engineers with Columbia Gas Transmission whom I admired because they were very, very good at what they did. Their basic knowledge and competence as engineers was amazing and inspired me to never stop learning. But I also have to mention Earl Eads, whom I worked for for many years. He was Director of Construction at Columbia Gas and had a work ethic that was a model for us. You worked until the job was done. You don’t see that as much today. There are others . . . John Fagg, Joe Fratino, Howard Murphy . . . it’s been a pleasure to work with so many astute, committed people through the years.
P&GJ: What advice would you offer to young people interested in an energy career?
Wrenn: The energy industry, taken as a whole, represents a limited segment of the economy, so infrastructure investment is a small segment. Most investments in the energy industry are represented by research, discovery and production of national gas reserves. The delivery segment is fairly small – my career followed the demand for the knowledge. I would encourage young people to look at international opportunities – the scope of these projects is much larger than domestic U.S. projects. This would be difficult for a new engineer, but worth the effort in building a career. I highly recommend a degree emphasizing advanced metallurgy, and nano-technology. But a degree is no substitute for critical thinking skills, and an eye toward innovation.
P&GJ: Do you think long careers in the pipeline business such as yours will continue to happen, as well as opportunities to work in every aspect of the industry?
Wrenn: You have to go back to almost the beginning to talk about how the pipeline business is so different now than when I started. Between the 1940s and 1980s, the pipeline industry was characterized by domestic construction of pipeline and compressor facilities. Then in the ’90s the economy and new technology increased the energy requirements many-fold and the focus became much more international. The U.S. economy was more mature than the emerging economies.
The experts and specialties needed to build the infrastructure became less necessary as the industry became established and matured. It would be difficult for someone to spend 50 years in the industry now. Back when I started, the pipeline compressor industry focused on small projects to attach gas reserves to local markets – we built the infrastructure that’s being used today. To get a feel for this, you can look at the Marcellus Shale development (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York) work going on. This work has a similar feel as the way we approached engineering in the ’60s and ’70s because the requirement for compressor design is necessary again. But I don’t think a new engineering graduate today can imagine staying in one industry through 2069. The world just doesn’t work like that anymore.
P&GJ: Can you tell us about your family and some of your interests outside of work?
Wrenn: I found my work so interesting that I never felt compelled to move much beyond it. My career gave me the resources I needed to provide for my family and enjoy travels across the nation and much of Europe. I was very fortunate to pursue a career that is such a good fit with my interests. It was an excellent match and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I am the father of three daughters, grandpa to two granddaughters and a grandson, and have been married to my wonderful wife Aileen for 46 years. We actually met while I was a college intern with United Fuel and she worked there as well. Even with the wonderful career I’ve had, the opportunity to spend my life with Aileen and raise my family is the legacy that means the most to me.