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Do Customers Even Notice?

March 11, 2013
(AKA-"If they build it will they come?")

For a power industry veteran, reading Pam Kufahl’s informative editorial “Energy Changes at a Turtle's Pace” is déjà vu all over again. At least it feels that way to me. My 30+ year career path has visited almost every nook and cranny of challenges and issues that Pam mentions. That’s been partly by chance but mostly by choice. I long ago decided to throw in my lot with an industry that has provided the right stuff to support the entire Maslow triangle of needs. Electric power not only makes life more enjoyable, it directly saves lives and undergirds and enables many other life-saving, life-enhancing pursuits. No wonder the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) named “electrification” – the vast networks of electricity that provide power to the developing world – the greatest achievement of the 20th century. On NAE’s list of the top 20 achievements, electrification is ahead of the automobile, airplane, the Internet or even space travel.

I’ve never been sorry for hanging in (well, maybe a few times). If I had gone a different route or retired early I would have missed the best part.

With the pressure of mounting environmental and resource concerns, we’ve really put the pedal to the metal over the last decade, at least from the power industry perspective. It wasn’t that long ago when what we called “automation” was really just human-monitored remote control. Outage notification “technology” was often a phone call from an irate customer. Twenty years ago we were theorizing about the “distributed” utility. Now we’ve gathered up the latest information and telecommunication technologies and bundled them into a concept called the smart grid. And we have more distributed generation and storage technologies than we know what to do with (literally).

Still, as Pam points out, the average customer may not notice how much our industry has changed in the last few decades. Why would they? Just like the Brady Bunch from years past, the customer flips a switch and the light goes on. A drunk driver hits a pole and the lights go out. Maybe the lights don’t go out as often as they used to and maybe they don’t stay off as long. But incremental improvements aren’t easily recognized by the average residential customer.

Even for those of us who keep track of system performance indices and get to contribute to our industry’s technology metamorphosis, it still seems like things move glacially. But we also know that, in general, it will take a long time before our century-old design and operating paradigms significantly respond to the flood of new enabling technologies. We just have so much existing infrastructure and legacy practices and standards (not to mention risk-aversity) to make big changes quickly. We will probably never receive ego-bracing accolades from customers – it will need to be enough just to know we’re, in general, doing the right thing.

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