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"Dedication and professionalism: dispatching at Terna from a female perspective"

Stories of Terna/ Roberta Franzosi, head of the Market Operation Room in the Dispatching department at Terna.

Even though the world of work and society in general are moving towards greater gender equality, the findings that emerge from national and European data confirm the low numbers of women in senior management roles. This sensitive issue affects many sectors, including the world of science, research and engineering, where a gap persists between men and women in terms of employment, pay, and career opportunities. We spoke about this with Roberta Franzosi, the first female head of the Market Operation Room in the Dispatching department at Terna, the operator of the Italian national transmission grid. This is a particularly important service because, as she herself explains, it consists of maintaining a constant balance between electricity supply and demand in the national high-voltage transmission grid, in order to avoid the risk of blackouts.

Engineer Roberta Franzosi at work in the Dispatching Market Operation Room at Terna (photo by Terna)

Franzosi leads a group of three people who work in rotation with five other teams. «It’s 24/7 shift work», to «guarantee the adequacy of the Italian electricity system in accordance with all the grid constraints provided by the Real Time Operation Room, also known as the control room, the nerve centre for electricity dispatching activities». And the fact that she has been promoted by virtue of her expertise and professionalism is proof that «experience and perseverance always pay off». But who is Roberta Franzosi, the first woman to perform this role at Terna, and what professional path did she follow to reach this new, high-profile position?

Engineer Franzosi, you are the Head of the Market Operation Room for Dispatching at Terna, the technological heart of the Italian electricity system. Can you explain to us what electricity dispatching means? And what does it mean to you to be in this role?

«Dispatching is the activity of managing and balancing electricity flows through the transmission grid for the purpose of guaranteeing — moment to moment — that electricity supply and demand are balanced. It’s an activity that requires constant monitoring and the application of all the measures necessary for the coordinated operation of the electricity system elements, from the production plants to the transmission grid and the auxiliary services. The Market Operation Room verifies availability and handles the procurement of resources for the dispatching services. These are time-limited resources that range from medium-term (36/48 hours before) to up to one hour before they are actually used. We perform our activities within the context of the energy markets, European market platforms and in various sessions of the dispatching services markets. Alongside this there is the whole process of predicting energy requirements for renewable sources. On a personal note, it’s a real source of satisfaction to be the head of this room. I took over this position just a short time ago, and it’s an important one because it’s a role that combines both coordination and operational aspects. It offers a real insight into all the strategic processes of resource acquisition, in the various market processes, and an analysis of resource procurement based also on the knowledge of the grid that I’ve acquired over the years».

The topic has become even more complex ever since the production of renewable sources in Italy has increased. Why is that?

«Renewable sources have profoundly changed the Italian electricity system, in both the planning stage and in its real-time management. Of course, the distribution of these resources across the country has completely changed the context in terms of the grid and the power flows, so that we're now managing situations which are completely different from ten years ago. The complexity springs from the greater uncertainty with these types of plants, which produce energy in a way that can’t be programmed. For example, wind and photovoltaic power are very variable throughout the day, depending partly on weather conditions, so that makes it harder to make predictions and means that we need increasingly advanced and accurate tools».

The production of electricity from wind and photovoltaic sources is very variable and cannot be programmed throughout the day (photo by Terna)

What happens in the event of an outage? In terms of the time frames, are there strict procedures to follow?

«The Market Operation Room is required to manage various problems that can have an impact on the electricity market and its main phases. Operators in the room are called upon to adopt transparency and traceability in managing their actions, both within the company and towards other market players. Critical issues of different natures can arise: when it comes to problems with the electricity market and the exchange of dispatching resources internationally, there are procedures that can be activated very quickly and which involve the different international platforms. Intervention times are always very rapid because the various market stages take place in quick succession, either intersecting or cascading one after the other. For that reason, it’s essential to know if it’s possible to restore normal operation and how much time that would take, or if it’s necessary to resort to backup procedures. These tight time frames are also due to the fact that all European electricity markets are evolving towards greater flexibility and dynamism and, above all, towards greater integration on a European level. We’re tending to move towards a continuous trading approach, which is also partly to facilitate the management and evolution of renewable sources. All the market’s preliminary processes are evolving towards stricter time frames. In addition to problems of this type are other, more technical critical issues linked to market algorithms and data flows, and others again linked to the management of the electricity system itself, both under normal conditions and when emergency procedures are activated. So, naturally, the actions performed by our room also change depending on the nature of the problem with the national transmission grid, or in the case of predictions of emergency actions which must also be taken by the Real Time Operation Room. These include group faults, for example, or a state of national emergency with the procurement of resources through means other than market mechanisms».

Inside the Service Control Room (photo by Terna)

Where did this professional passion come from? Are you pleased with your achievements?

«After a short period working at the University of Pavia, where I got a degree in electrical engineering, I immediately started working for Terna. For a few years I was a duty assistant — I was the first woman in that role — in the National Control Centre room, the heart of the Italian electricity system, where I handled the management and security of the electricity system in real time. It was a very educational experience».

How many people are on your team? And how many of them are women?

«The group I coordinate is made up of four people, three assistants and a room head. It’s 24/7 shift work, and there are five other teams in addition to mine that we work in rotation with. In total, there are 24 of us, and two women other than me, both in the role of assistant».

In your professional experience, what — if any — obstacles have you had to overcome as a woman?

«I was the first woman to do shift work in the National Control Centre room. Before me, it was an all-male environment in the room. Apart from some initial reserve, which is normal for any new start, particularly in an environment which had previously only consisted of male colleagues, I’ve never encountered any obstacles because of being a woman. On the contrary, my colleagues and managers have been really important to me on this journey. I think that the key was approaching my role with professionalism, determination and perseverance. That really helped to foster a simple and collaborative team relationship».

In what ways can a company like Terna facilitate and promote women in the workplace and gender equality, in your personal experience?

«Working at Terna is a privilege. I’ve never had the impression that I was getting different treatment in the workplace, or different opportunities for professional development, compared to my male colleagues. I believe that Terna does and has always valued not only professionalism but particularly experience, without any kind of discrimination. What’s more, it allows women to not only pursue their professional careers, but also to conduct their private lives with peace of mind».

«Women must never underestimate their own abilities, aptitudes and talents. Without a doubt, experience and perseverance always pay off and you should never let yourself be discouraged by the difficulties you'll encounter along any path. Women are strong, they have immense power and I believe that this power is also the backbone of our society. My advice? Focus on strengthening your expertise and never lose sight of your objectives».

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was celebrated on 11 February. According to data from ISTAT (the Italian National Institute of Statistics), female graduates in STEM disciplines amount to around half the number of their male peers. What do you believe to be the reasons behind this discrepancy?

«First of all, we have to consider the results achieved by female graduates of STEM disciplines. Although we represent a lower percentage than men, it is also true that the women who do embark upon this course of studies not only complete it, but always do so with excellent results. This is also a factor worth considering. In any case, there might be lots of different reasons behind this discrepancy: those who dedicate themselves to these disciplines are motivated by interest, passion and a certain attitude. It’s a tough road, so those who choose it are usually certain about it. What’s more, I don’t think that the stereotypes about these disciplines being reserved for men are still at play, because a lot has changed in the university context too. Regardless of the professional choices of individual women, I think that you have to start within education to support women in entering the world of science, by making them aware of the experiences of other women and providing positive examples so that they can picture their own futures and make more informed decisions».

The importance of questions related to overcoming gender inequality is also emphasised in the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). Do you think that European funds can mark a real change of course to bridge this discrepancy?

«As long as we still need to talk about real changes of course, unfortunately we can’t yet talk about true gender equality in the workplace. This reflects the fact that, despite everything, there still hasn’t been a change of mentality in many working environments to actually remove all disparities. That said, of course all initiatives and resources dedicated to financing measures to bridge the gap — ranging from pay to opportunities for growth in the company, and from the protection of maternity rights to support for female entrepreneurship — are all precious resources to take further strides towards full inclusion and gender equality».

In conclusion: what advice or message would you like to send to the women who are still fighting today, and those who will be tomorrow?

«Women must never underestimate their own abilities, aptitudes and talents. Without a doubt, experience and perseverance always pay off and you should never let yourself be discouraged by the difficulties you’ll encounter along any path. Women are strong, they have immense power and I believe that this power is also the backbone of our society. My advise is to focus on strengthening your expertise and never lose sight of your objectives».