Substation on 'Stilts' - courtesy Centerpoint

Challenges are Turning the Utility Industry Upside Down

Sept. 8, 2014
And that’s a good thing because we have innovators that can step to the plate and hit home runs - if their management and regulators let them.

Many years ago I got the urge to be an amateur artist. I bought all the usual stuff – a water color kit, sketching pencils, various papers. But the one thing I couldn’t buy was the ability to draw. Try as I might, using photos of my kids, animals, landscape scenes – nothing came out quite right. The drawings looked distorted, odd, and not quite realistic.

Then I read the classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and it vastly improved my drawing abilities. Much more importantly, it changed my life.

Edwards explained that most of us draw not what we actually see, but we reproduce symbols stored in our brain. So when I’d try to draw a face it would always come out looking a bit like the ubiquitous ‘have a good day’ smiley face.

Try a quick test on yourself. Take out your driver’s license and look at your picture for a few seconds. Then close your eyes and tell me how far up your eyes are from the bottom of your chin to the top of your head. Two Thirds? Three quarters? Half way up?

Turn the photo upside down. Now what’s your guess? (See end of this article for the answer)

Most folks, particularly technical folks, are surprised by this experiment. You will be even more surprised if you take the time to draw what you see in the upside down photo. You’ll usually end up with a face that actually looks like you!

Edwards explains that when we turn the photo upside down, the left side of our brain, where symbols are stored, gives up control because it has no symbol for an upside down face. Then the right brain takes control and we start to draw what we actually see.

Well, I found that I could begin to actually draw things and people the way they are. All I had to do was take pictures and turn them upside down. And soon the walls of our house were plastered with the results. My kids were embarrassed, my wife was patient, and after a year or so I moved on to some other obsession.

But my life was changed forever as I began to realize that I could approach problem solving in a more effective way by turning things “upside down.”

Rick Bush, editorial director of T&D World, has a different way of stating the process. He’s an advocate of doing things “the wrong way.” I’m urging him to write an article on his brainchild so I won’t steal his thunder. I’ll just say that doing things the ‘wrong way’ frees you up from trying to measure progress by the metrics. If you do that you’ll end up with a ‘smiley’ face that sometimes won’t be exactly wrong. But it won’t be an optimal result.

Put another way, it doesn’t matter how fast the ambulance is going if it’s heading in the wrong direction.

Wait a minute Paul, you might say.  Art, ambulances! Whaddya, nuts?! What’s all this got to do with the utility industry?

Well, more than any time in the industry’s history we’re going through some major paradigm shifts. Looks like coal is going the way of the dinosaurs. In fact, the future of big centralized generation is questionable (see reader poll: Is Big Generation Circling the Drain? ). Some utilities are looking at abandoning the central generation idea altogether and becoming purveyors of solar panels (see Distributed vs. Centralized Generation: Battle of the CEOs ). And of course, who knows how the Sons of Smart Grid will mutate. The results could over-whelming as we get distracted with all the data.

I recently talked to several utilities about storm hardening and, boy, talk about innovation! For example, I saw photos from Centerpoint showing substation control centers and even a large autotransformer sitting up on 15 foot concrete ‘stilts’. That puts them above the expected maximum storm surge flooding in Galveston. PSE&G in New Jersey is also elevating entire substations. Of course, Con Edison is meeting the dual challenges of protecting overhead lines and extensive underground networks in Manhattan. You’ll get to read all about it in a special article scheduled for the November T&D World edition.

Substations on the eastern coast will never be designed the same way again. But that’s just a small sample of the new storm surge of innovation throughout the industry. Last week I had breakfast with Dave Lankutis, Senior Project Engineer with Power Engineers. In his long career, Dave has been everywhere, done everything in our industry and has a wonderfully broad perspective. Man, is he full of ideas about innovative solutions! So I invited Dave to join the Grid Optimization expert panel and I can’t wait to get some of his thoughts out to our readers.

We have plenty of folks who can turn things ‘upside down’ and innovate without restraint while still accomplishing needed outcomes. The challenge will be to remove the barriers that often constrain them to a cubicle of mediocrity.

As an old PG&E boss of mine, Carl Weinberg, used to say, “Sometimes the best thing you can do for a company is throw away the Standard Practice”.

Answer: Most folks will first answer that the eyes are about two thirds the way from the chin to the top of the head. When they turn the photo upside down they’ll usually say half way. And that’s correct. Most individual’s eye-line, drawn horizontally through the center of the eyes, is in the middle of the face.

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