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Engineering a Career of Innovation: Ver Mulm Retires After 43 Years

  • Posted: 04.28.2020

Growing up on a farm near Hartley, Iowa, Steve Ver Mulm learned the value of problem solving and being innovative from his father, a farmer and neighborhood blacksmith. "He could weld anything," said Ver Mulm. "He would often fix his own stuff out of necessity and he gladly offered his services to others." Steve's love of math and science (he placed third in a state math competition, during his senior year of high school) led him off the family farm and to the College of Engineering at Iowa State University.

Ver Mulm graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electric Engineering degree in May of 1976 and two months later he began his career with NIPCO where he remained his entire professional career. He will retire from NIPCO on May 1, with almost 44 years of service to the electric generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative.

As a perspective, when Steve walked through NIPCO's door on his first day, NIPCO's transmission system was only about 20 years old. Steve's early engineering work primarily centered around the expansion and development of the NIPCO and regional power grids. He was involved with a large study group known as the Iowa Transmission Working Group (ITWG) who met regularly to discuss and plan the working model of Iowa's transmission grid. "There were only about twenty of us," Steve recalls. "We usually met at Iowa State University where we could perform calculations using their computers which were larger and could handle more data."

The NIPCO Engineering department (including Ver Mulm, first row, far right) gather around an early computer, circa 1987

"The Big Grid", as Steve describes it, has been built out and the statewide planning groups have shifted to meetings conducted on the national level. As those planning efforts shifted from statewide grid-planning to integrating a national electric transmission grid, NIPCO remained an active participant in MAPP (Mid-Continental Area Power Pool), which served as a predecessor to what is now known as Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs). VerMulm served as NIPCO's representative to MAPP.

In 2014, NIPCO was faced with determining its future as a potential member of an RTO. Because NIPCO's power suppliers were integrating as members of SPP (Southwest Power Pool), an RTO, several levels of involvement were considered, along with the opportunities and challenges associated with each of them. Ver Mulm was involved with the analysis to understand the operational changes and financial implications that membership in SPP would bring to NIPCO. On October 1, 2015, NIPCO joined SPP as a Transmission Owner (TO) and integrated nearly 80% of its electric transmission system into the RTO system.

With planning, today, being led by RTOs like SPP (Southwest Power Pool) and MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator), engineering efforts at NIPCO involve collaborating among those groups as well as national and federal regulatory groups. In the NIPCO system, work is being done to update and improve NIPCO's infrastructure to include more modern technology to make the transmission system more safe, resilient, and efficient.

Ver Mulm also played an important role in the development and administration of NIPCO's load management system. An innovative leader in the deployment of a system-wide load management system, NIPCO established the Switch Makes Cents program in 1984 to promote the installation of electric heat and the efficiency of electric equipment. For over 35 years, Switch Makes Cents has served as a popular option for member-owners who wish to reduce electric costs for their home and/or business. Currently, over 18,000 switches are installed throughout the system. Switch Makes Cents continues to contribute an annual average benefit of $3.7 million in avoided demand costs to the NIPCO system, alone. These savings are realized by NIPCO members in the base rate and are passed along to their participating member-owners in order to maintain affordable electric rates.

"Steve has played an integral and foundational role in the planning and building of NIPCO's existing system. Many of the programs our member distribution cooperatives rely on to provide value to their member consumers have Steve’s fingerprints all over them," said Matt Washburn, NIPCO Executive Vice president and General Manager. "Steve has been a touchstone for many member managers over the years. The calm, calculated manner Steve handles challenges and member requests has been a tremendous asset to NIPCO, its members and ultimately, the member-consumers of western Iowa. He will be sorely missed."

Steve Ver Mulm, right, reviews system work with Engineering Manager Jayme Huber

Ver Mulm looks forward to a future enjoying more time with his six children and seven grandchildren. An international traveler, he would like to focus his attention on adventures that will be enjoyed in his new travel trailer. "Seeing more things and getting closer to nature," he says.

"I have had a wonderful career and have enjoyed all the people I have worked with," proclaims Ver Mulm. Well, Steve, we feel the same way about you!

The NIPCO staff wishes Steve Ver Mulm the very best on his retirement.