Solutions Are Within Reach for Utility's Complex Challenges

March 8, 2024
The solution-oriented mindset of engineers and construction professionals in the face of obstacles gives me confidence in our ability to facilitate the monumental changes underway in the power sector.

As our utility clients are facing new pressures, they are seeking out innovative ideas to address increased demand for clean, reliable energy.

The solution-oriented mindset of engineers and construction professionals in the face of obstacles gives me confidence in our ability to facilitate the monumental changes underway in the power sector. Utilities are facing an unprecedented evolution in what regulators and customers expect from them. Optimizing their investments in building, operating and maintaining their assets is as complex as it is essential.

Reliability and affordability remain the watchwords for electric utilities. Achieving and maintaining those objectives is a tougher climb when the global energy transition and increasing electrification are asking more of our critical infrastructure than ever. 

But I know we can reach our goals by working together and applying new and integrated solutions.

Miles of Work Ahead

This year is poised to be a big year on the policy front, working through regulations to balance load growth, climate, reliability and affordability. Landmark investments in the U.S. electric sector are creating a generational influx of billions of dollars in funding and tax credits to upgrade the grid. The U.S. Department of Energy reports it is already seeing the infusion of these funds starting to emerge.

The scale of renewables expansion is staggering. Renewable energy sources have made enormous leaps forward in terms of deployment and affordability, boosting carbon reduction initiatives. While they will struggle to achieve net zero emissions alone — and must pass through the congested interconnection queue gauntlet — they have an important role in moving toward decarbonization targets. 

Much of the electrical transmission and distribution grid requires upgrades to support two-way power flows. Communications and controls are critical to managing the complexity of the modern grid in real time. Many of these grid modernization efforts are already in the works or underway, but thousands of miles of work is yet to come.

Another significant factor utilities must deal with is the cost of capital. Money is expensive, as interest rates hover near recent highs. Commissions have also been carefully scrutinizing rate cases, making it even more important for utilities to prepare strong, defensible requests as they launch into significant, multiyear investment programs.

No surprise: Everyone wants decarbonized power and electrification, but paying for it — and all it entails — upfront is one of the great challenges of our time.

Success Is an Attitude

There are good reasons for optimism.

I believe we are in the middle of a technology revolution. We must embrace, not fear, the changes coming. We are seeing a wellspring of new technologies, innovative ideas and reimagined processes. These new ideas are moving quickly and infusing value in creative solutions to the challenges confronting our critical infrastructure.

Implementing new technologies — including smart meters, smart grid systems, cybersecurity measures, electric vehicle charging and battery storage — is a key area of investment for utilities.

Diverse project delivery methods provide customized approaches to the wide range of project needs and budget requirements involved in strengthening the grid for decarbonization and electrification initiatives. Working with partners able to offer a variety of project delivery methods to suit your needs can make a dramatic difference in the implementation and cost-effectiveness of projects and programs. Integrated approaches can enhance communication, streamline approvals, and minimize the number and extent of change orders. 

Any or all of these can help utilities get more in a time of significant constraints on materials and personnel. Electric utilities will need contractors who complement and extend their capabilities, empowering the utilities to prioritize projects and maximize the impact of their capital investments in delivering reliable power.

The work is thrilling, but it will take investment and collaboration across our entire industry in support of a greater cause. At Burns & McDonnell, we will be intentional: prioritizing our initiatives throughout the organization and adopting technology, systems and processes to fortify our future. And most important, continuing to go above and beyond for our clients.

Rising to the Moment

In January I became chair and CEO of Burns & McDonnell, an opportunity to lead the company where I’ve spent 24 years helping clients and finding solutions to challenges. It has been an honor and a humbling journey. In those years, I’ve seen the economy rise and fall. I’ve seen trends emerge, bloom and pass. I’ve worked with hundreds and thousands of professionals across numerous industries and disciplines as we tackle the challenges of our time.

When I say I have confidence in our ability to achieve extraordinary outcomes, it is because I have witnessed what resolute organizations can accomplish through adaptability and perseverance.

A relentless focus on living and working safely is a vital piece of the puzzle. It is of paramount importance to me, personally and professionally, that we align our mindset and behaviors to create a culture of continuous learning, one in which individuals are just as important as outcomes.

The energy transition is remaking our world, putting incredible strains on legacy assets as we feverishly work to reinforce and expand the critical infrastructure maintaining those connections and to make such infrastructure more sustainable. 

We’re just getting started. I know we can get there together.

LESLIE M. DUKE is chair and CEO of Burns & McDonnell.


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