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Innovation in the Utility Industry?

The industry has innovated, is innovating and will continue to innovate at an increasing pace.

Many say no, I say yes! Like many of our readers, I’ve been involved in the industry for a relatively long time (25+ years). Well, maybe middle-aged compared to many of my peers and colleagues. I’ve had dozens, if not hundreds, of experiences with people, vendors and media organizations; and they say how slow we are, how far backward our technology is, how we lack foresight. Many see the utility industry as the industry of “slow,” if not even the industry of “no.” “No” to new technologies, business models, clean air, clean water, sustainability and everything else. We are DOUGs: Dumb Old Utility Guys. I’ve always found that mindset naive, disturbing, inaccurate and off-target.

Are there challenges to being entrepreneurial in the utility industry? Of course there are. We are highly regulated, have an obligation to serve, designated a service territory, and don’t have the freedom to create new business models without the oversight of regulatory bodies, boards, and consumer advocates. Given these realities and these challenges, the industry has innovated, is innovating and will continue to innovate at an increasing pace. After all, in 2003, the National Academy of Engineering published A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements that Transformed our Lives. Electrification of the nation and our society was ranked as the No. 1 innovation. This was an incredible achievement and a force multiplier in improving the quality of life for our citizens.

I’ve had two examples this past month where I heard, saw and experienced innovation in action in the utility industry.

At the recent TechAdvantage event, T&D World held an early-morning roundtable discussion with six cooperative CEOs. This opportunity was put together by my good friend Tracy Warren, senior communication officer at NRECA. The utilities involved ranged in size from 6000 to 42,000 meters, and the tenure of the leaders varied from two months to 20+ years. The participants came from six organizations:

  • Ron Salyer, president and CEO, Pioneer Electric Cooperative
  • Mike Casper, president and CEO, Jo-Carroll Energy
  • Scott Reimer, general manager, Federated Rural Electric Cooperative
  • Jeremy Richert, P.E. CEO, Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative
  • Jeff Wadsworth, president and CEO, Poudre Valley REA, Inc.
  • Dave Schneider, CEO and general manager, Mid-state Electric Cooperative

Top of mind for these executives was how they do more with the data they are currently gathering from their AMI systems and other smart devices in the field. They are already leveraging that data for outage management, estimating restoration times, transformer overloading, customer engagement, and putting information into the hands of the lineman. Not only do these leaders want to do more with the data, what’s truly exciting is their employees are proactively asking “What more can we do with the data?”

The ability to see the data and understand with deeper insights what is happening on their systems has unleashed a new level of creativity and curiosity and is helping them run better, more efficient organizations. Many have been leveraging this data for innovation since the mid-2000s. One thing that struck a chord with me was the desire for these co-ops to have a true 1-to-1 relationship with each of their customers.

The other example of innovation was from the Department of Energy (DOE). It is bringing together the entire energy ecosystem to increase the resilience and reliability of our critical grid infrastructure. I recently attended the DOE’s Electricity Advisory Committee planning meeting held in Washington, DC. The committee is appointed by the Secretary of Energy and consists of 30+ members, making up a prestigious group of leaders and stakeholders from across the industry. This includes utilities, industry associations, academia, regulators, consumer advocates, independent consultants and more. The group advises the DOE on electricity reliability, security and policy issues. During the meeting, the Honorable Bruce Walker, Assistant Secretary, Office of Electricity, challenged the industry to think bigger, and to not rely on the tools and mindsets of the past. Go out and create the solutions for the future. Walker is bringing to bear the vast capabilities of the national labs and key stakeholders to solve these problems.

The second day was an amazing panel on cybersecurity preparedness, led by Richard S. Mroz, managing director, Resolute Strategies, LLC. The panel included Scott Aaronson, VP, Security and Preparedness, EEI; Dr. Lynn Costantini, deputy director, Center for Partnership and Innovation, NARUC; Sam Chanoski, director of Threat Intelligence, Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center, NERC; and Robert Lee, CEO and Co-Founder, Dragos. I was excited to see that the DOE is active and engaged with the utilities, vendors, and regulators when it comes to cybersecurity of our nation’s critical infrastructure. If any cyber event happens, the coordination among the stakeholders is a well-structured process to get everyone involved and notified to what is happening and simultaneously work on a solution.  Knowing the passion and commitment of this group, I’m much less concerned the industry is prepared for cyber threats and I’m more confident that when something eventually does happen, we are prepared for that as well.

I expect your utility is also actively pursuing innovative, yet pragmatic solutions. We would love for you to share your innovations with your fellow industry cohorts. Reach out to any of our T&D World editorial staff. Let us help you strut your stuff.

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