Globalization of the U.S. Utility Industry

Aug. 23, 2012
Is your company more concerned about travel budgets than it is about falling behind?

I wanted to crawl under the conference table.

“We’d like to invite you to send one of your engineers to our offices in Japan for a few months and see what we are doing.” That was the invitation offered by the head of a large Japanese utility. He and several others from his company had arrived a few days before. This gracious gentleman was addressing a senior VP at the U.S. utility where I worked. We were having a little ceremony and send-off party for the young Japanese engineer that had been with us for several months. And now we were offered the opportunity to reciprocate.

“Sorry, can't do that. We don’t have anyone here who speaks Japanese,” replied our VP.

Our guest quit smiling. “But you do have Berlitz!”

Not much more was said. Our visitors left. I helped drive them to the airport. They gave me a gift, a nice camera that I still have. They were gracious even though they had been insulted. Those of us who had worked with our Japanese visitor and who had attended the going away party were embarrassed.

Our VP had implied, probably unknowingly, that there wasn’t much benefit to sending someone to check out what was going on outside the States. It certainly wasn’t worth paying for some language lessons. (In contrast, the Japanese contingent later told me that they had extensively prepped for their trip – boning up on their English skills and learning American customs).

That was about 15 years ago. In those days, most international travel, what little there was of it, was done by managers and executives. Travel out of the state was often considered a perk - seldom a business necessity. And international travel, well that was just too expensive to consider – even though a trip to Washington D.C. was sometimes more expensive than a trip to a CIRED conference in Paris.

I was fortunate to be in an R&D department and had a little more freedom. And it paid off. A lot of what I’ve contributed to advanced distribution automation and sensor development started with a trip to Finland where I was blown away by their approach to distribution management. Travel to other parts of Europe and India also contributed to my professional abilities and benefitted my employers and clients.

Our overseas cousins have long found international sharing of ideas valuable and worth the trip – when I was with PG&E we regularly had visitors from Asia, South America and Europe. They came to pick our brains and seemed to think the cost was a bargain. We were frequently surprised to find that these folks were often way ahead of us when it came to long distance transmission, distribution automation and telecommunication technologies. They didn't have an outdated infrastructure to deal with and could start from scratch.

No wonder international manufacturers have taken the lead in global sales. ABB, Siemens, Schneider and GE are sometimes called the four horsemen of the smart grid. But…only one of these companies is U.S.-based, although the others have been selling in the United States for decades.

Well, thank goodness times are changing, albeit it slowly. For example, T&D World magazine, based in good old middle-American Overland Park, Kansas, is the most widely read electric utility magazine in the world. Now the magazine has a Russian language edition. Traveling to Russia, touring facilities and meeting with Russian power experts let T&D World dig up nuggets to share with the United States and the rest of the world. We're also working with India and China, and we have long-standing relationships with European utilities.

Beyond the media activities, we're seeing groups of U.S. utility representatives visiting abroad to bring back innovative practices that are new to our side of the Atlantic.

Still, does all this mean that U.S. travel budgets will loosen up and we’ll see more U.S. electric utility engineers trading cubicles for airline seats for a week or so of international travel? I’m sure it doesn’t. Not yet. But I’m hopeful that the utility culture is gradually recognizing that we need help and innovation from all sources – including international ones.

The power industry paradigm is changing rapidly. This is no time to be sitting on the sidelines and letting bean counting dominate strategic technology planning.

True, we’re getting more and more convenient ways of educating ourselves about what’s happening in the global power community. We’ve got the Internet, webinars, and engineering society technical sessions. However, I’ve found that nothing sticks in my mind and gets my creative juices flowing like seeing and discussing.

International exchanges open the eyes of those visited and those visiting. No other form of communication can even come close.

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