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The Value of Plod

April 17, 2013
Waiting for technology-related decisions to be made in the average electric utility is like watching paint dry. But, as much as we hate to admit it, the process has worked pretty well!

My first job after college was in the R&D department of a California electric and gas utility. This was the early 1970s, my office was about 35 miles from the fledgling Silicon Valley, and I was raring to change the power industry through advanced technology. I also had a certain amount of the self-righteousness and arrogance that goes with being somewhat of a technical weeny, and I relied on a git 'er done, goal-charging, process-avoiding attitude to move things along.

So you can imagine my bouts of frustration in trying to get the more conservative operational folks to adopt, or at least try, some new whiz-bang technology that my group was enamored with.

But I've mellowed (composted?) with age and experience. I've learned to appreciate the value of process and the necessity of a certain amount of (gasp) layered decision making and stubborn bureaucracy. I've told the story of my musician friend who had advanced degrees in government affairs from a prestigious university only to finally realize that the purpose of government wasn't what he thought. (See Are You the Wheel or Another Brake Pad? ) He said that after getting his degrees he finally came to the conclusion, shared by a number of his professors, that the role of government structure isn’t primarily to get anything done. Oh sure, if a bureaucrat or political leader actually accomplishes something worthwhile it probably won’t be held against them. But the real value of government is to move slowly enough to act as a brake, a damper, so that things don’t happen too fast and get out of control.

That didn't get my friend too excited about a career in government. So now, instead of wearing a suit on the Capital Beltway, he lives in southern Arizona when he's not on tour, and gets to put his creative talents to some fun work.

Anyway, the point is that utility management structure is similar to the federal government. Endless paperwork, numerous consensus and focus groups, multiple approval levels – all the dampers, drudge and delay that most of us dread - but (I have to say this through gritted teeth) these have all helped to make the American power system stable, and, over time, steadily progressive.

The power industry is a huge market opportunity for manufacturers and vendors. The quality of our product is critical to national and local quality of life, economic development and security. And, over the last couple of decades, we've been drafted as a major player in climate change and other environmental brouhahas.

We've always got someone at the door. Salesmen, entrepreneurs, politicians, interveners, environmental action groups – you name it. Someone is always trying to get a piece of us, either to sell us something, solicit support or shut us down. And we report to everyone – customers, regulators, government. Being at peace with everyone, or at least not in open conflict, is intrinsic to our public compact. And the doorbell continues to ring – how do we deal with the chaos?

Simple – we just take a long, long time to answer the door! Put another way, we have a low pass filter that keeps our response time so long that we wear out all but the most determined callers. Or just call it "sales resistance."

Our first line of defense is lack of distributed authority. The staff engineer can't authorize much. Neither can his boss. Ask a utility for any kind of commitment that involves risk – financial, technological, or legal - and suddenly a whole series of approvals is required, from the engineer to the law department. Legacy utility suppliers know how to play that game, but newcomers soon move on.

Getting support from friends in "high places" such as regulators or political leaders can often get the caller through the door and as far as the foyer. Try hard enough to force a utility to be the first adopter of an untested save-the-world technology and the company might just smile, graciously build a "pilot project" in an insignificant part of the system and 'watch' it for 10 years.

Call it stubborn, call it stalling, call it Luddite – the process works. Remember the early wind turbines with the propellers that flew off, endangering workers, or the turbine shafts that broke or the supports that collapsed. How about the big ugly black rooftop solar water heating bags that cracked after a couple years of sun exposure. Then there were the load control switches with electronics that failed in the heat. What if we had impulsively welcomed these technologies into our infrastructure and prematurely promoted them to our customers?

From renewables to demand management, from underground cables to suspension insulators, we've had plenty of products that we rejected or sometimes "piloted" until they were improved to the level of low-risk utility style acceptance. To have done otherwise would have left our customers and shareholders holding a bag of stranded and unwanted assets. Instead, we've continued to provide high quality, affordable power while incrementally advancing our capabilities through advanced technology. We have good reason to be proud.

So, instead of grousing about company bureaucracy, arise, get out of your cubicle and go hug a bean counter!

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