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TVA innovation scout James Linder

The Matchmaker

Innovation Scout Hunts Game-Changing Inventions

It might surprise you to learn that Tennessee Valley Authority employs a matchmaker. 

Looking for a date? Not that type of a matchmaker.

Got a technology gap, or a technical problem that needs a better solution? 

James Linder is your guy.

And he doesn’t work with just anyone. He serves an exclusive club – the employees of TVA’s 26 internal business units and 153 local power company partners. 

Linder helps them find better, faster, cheaper ways to operate by scouring research labs, technology incubators and startup companies for the latest, greatest inventions.

His official title is program manager for innovation scouting. 

“I guess you could call me a matchmaker for emerging technologies,” Linder said. 

Happy Marriages 

One happy marriage Linder recently brokered involved Shane Lott’s inspection services team, which monitors the integrity of tens of thousands of valves, tanks, pipes, welds and splices across TVA. 

Lott’s group faced a technical challenge with transmission line compression fittings, the splices that join high-tension conductors. TVA has thousands of these fittings on its transmission system, some brand new and some quite old.

They have a steel core covered with an aluminum sleeve. And they’re between 25 and 200 feet in the air. 

So how do you get a good look at them? 

Lott, a senior manager, had been noodling over how to better inspect transmission line splices since he started at TVA as a technician 15 years ago. 

“What do we have to do? Does it have to be out of a helicopter? Can we use a drone? How do we do it?” he said. 

This is the type of case Linder adores. 

“I love for people to reach out to me and say, ‘You know what? I don't know what I need, but I know I've got a problem doing X,’” Linder said. 

He connected Lott’s group and transmission line inspectors with an X-ray device that line crews can use from a bucket truck and, potentially soon, a drone. 

The technology allows TVA to identify and repair degraded splices before they actually fail, said Joe Turk, senior program manager for transmission lines. 

“This is a huge enhancement to our inspection program,” Turk said. 

Cutting Costs

Another of Linder’s success stories is Jon Vincent, who runs the inspection program for about 100 fuel oil, water and ammonia tanks at TVA plants around the region.

For years, those tanks – some as big as 5 million gallons – had to be drained and cleaned for periodic inspections. 

Robotic technology began making inroads, but it was far from perfect. Some of the tanks have bolts on the bottom, and the robot inspectors tended to get stuck on them. 

Linder matched Vincent to a more advanced submersible robot. 

“It can swim, and then it can float, and then it can move across the bottom of the floor,” said Vincent, senior program manager for engineering and technical programs.

The nimbler robot conducts a more thorough inspection, and the timing is more flexible because tanks don’t have to be emptied.

The best part? The inspections cost half what Vincent had been paying. 

Other technologies Linder scouted have spanned a range of applications: 

  • Coatings to improve the energy efficiency of single-pane windows in older homes
  • A wearable voltage detection meter to warn about unseen live wires
  • A system for tracking the load on local power companies’ transformers as more electric vehicle chargers come onto the grid.  

Months of Courtship

Only a tiny fraction of candidate technologies make it to the altar, so to speak. 

Each year, Linder sees pitch decks and concept papers from hundreds of startups. He prowls academic conferences to follow the latest research, even before it’s translated into prototypes and scalable technology. 

Most of all, the 24-year TVA veteran networks to learn about thorny or expensive problems like Lott’s and Vincent’s. 

When he sees a good potential fit, that’s when things get serious. 

It can take months – sometimes even a few years – to test a new technology and verify it actually moves the needle. 

“You can't celebrate success until you have done a demonstration,” Linder said. “We've had plenty of demonstrations that have looked promising. But they just didn't cross that finish line.”

What determines a match made in heaven is ultimately quite simple: “This is going to change how we do business going forward.”

'A Great Advantage’ 

Even while he’s scouting this year’s best new technology, Linder keeps one eye on the horizon. 

TVA’s major innovation initiatives – such as advanced nuclear technology, battery storage and scaling EVs – require long-range problem-solving. And they cut across the entire electric utility industry. 

Linder’s program at TVA is part of Incubatenergy Labs, a global consortium of electric utilities under the umbrella of the Electric Power Research Institute.  

“All these utilities know we’re not in this boat by ourselves,” Linder said. “Everybody else is trying to figure it out too.” 

From Lott’s perspective, Linder is an invaluable resource. 

“There’s a lot of new advancements,” Lott said. "Having somebody figuring out what’s good, what’s bad, and how we can use it – it's a great advantage.”

While his training as an engineer is vital, Linder said, relationship-building is just as important. 

“I absolutely love that I get to talk with new people and help new people,” he said.

“It really is about listening and partnering to help move them forward. I want to be that guy people look at and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem. I need to call James.’”  

Photo Gallery

Scout James Linder

TVA innovation scout James Linder combs through hundreds of new inventions every year.

TVA senior inspection services manager Shane Lott shows a cross-section of a transmission line

TVA senior inspection services manager Shane Lott shows a cross-section of a transmission line – a steel core surrounded by aluminum fibers that conduct electricity.

Joe Turk, TVA’s senior manager for transmission lines

New X-ray technology will help TVA identify weakened splices before they fail, said Joe Turk, TVA’s senior manager for transmission lines.

Aluminum sleeves

These aluminum sleeves will be used as the outer layer protecting transmission line splices.

Technicians unloading an advanced submersible robot to inspect a water tank

Linder snapped this photo of technicians unloading an advanced submersible robot to inspect a water tank at TVA’s Magnolia Combined Cycle Plant in Benton County, Mississippi.

Jon Vincent, a TVA senior manager

Jon Vincent, a TVA senior manager responsible for tank inspections, said the new robot performs better than its predecessor – and it saves money.

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Explore

Watch a video and read about innovations at TVA’s Energy System of the Future page. 

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