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He leads one of America’s most innovative utilities. Here’s where he thinks the smart grid is headed.

Our utility innovation summit, PowerUp, is nearly here.

We’ve already shared five reasons why you should attend. Today, we’ll add a sixth: the tremendous speaker series we’ve got lined up.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll be profiling some of the utility leaders, behavioral scientists, and messaging experts who will take the stage at PowerUp 2015. Alameda Municipal Power’s General Manager, Glenn Steiger, is helping us kick things off with an interview he gave earlier this month — sharing insights from 45 years in the field. Here’s what he told us about where the industry’s been and where we’re headed next.

Opower: You’ve been an industry pioneer in rolling out utility smart meter programs. Based on your experience, what are the keys to a successful smart meter rollout — especially as it relates to engaging customers?

Glenn Steiger: There are a few key elements to a successful AMI rollout. First, it is critical to create an educated and motivated workforce that understands the benefits and potential pitfalls of such a widespread and culture-changing project. But more to your point, outreach and ongoing communication with stakeholders and customers is an absolute must! Engaging this group before, during, and after project deployment is the most important element of the transition to a “digital utility.” An honest assessment of what this technology will and will not do must be provided before and during deployment. Once deployed, the customer will be looking for a new and meaningful means of engaging with information supplied by the new technology; this is where the utility must perform in a way that’s innovative, engaging, and transparent.

O: In light of new technology — and customers’ rising expectations of service providers — what does a great customer experience look like for a today’s electricity consumer?

GS: It really depends on who and where the customer is. I have now had the opportunity to develop and deploy smart grid systems at three very disparate utilities, with very different demographics, geographics, and culture — and as a result, I’ve come to appreciate varying views and expectations of “customer experience.”

 

"The one commonality seems to be the expectation that new smart technology will... give customers more freedom."

The one commonality seems to be the expectation that new smart technology will allow a more immediate interaction with utility-based applications, and that this will give customers more freedom.

O: As CEO of Glendale Water and Power, you led your utility to become the first in the US to be fully smart-grid operational for both electricity and water. In what ways are municipal utilities emerging as innovators on advanced technology and customer engagement?

GS: Because most municipal systems are smaller and less siloed than their larger IOU counterparts, they can be more nimble, and quicker to make course corrections when necessary. This has served both GWP and AMP [Alameda Municipal Power, another municipal utility] very well in moving ahead with various technological initiatives.

"Because most municipal systems are smaller and less siloed than their larger IOU counterparts, they can be more nimble."

Interestingly, the two utilities have taken very different approaches to technological innovation: GWP has positioned itself as a leading-edge innovator, while AMP has concentrated more on green initiatives and related technologies. Both, however, are recognized for their ability to quickly move forward and take advantage of windows of opportunity — and that's been the key to their success.

O: How do you measure the success of customer engagement initiatives? What’s an example of a large, customer-related investment you’ve made that you're especially proud of?

GS: Obviously, I could say that our customer satisfaction surveys are a key metric of how well we are implementing customer engagement initiatives, and of course they are. However, I think it is far more important to measure how smart our customers are becoming in understanding their involvement with energy-related applications — and how comfortable they are interacting with their energy supplier. While I am very proud of the customer engagement vehicles that I have been involved with, we still have a lot of work to do in this area. The GWP smart grid initiative and its customer engagement vehicle — the CEIVA frame, digital portal, and app (and its integration with the Opower platform) — have been my most satisfying initiatives and investments. They’ve not only proven to be one of the most engaging smart grid customer interfaces, but have also created a platform for future applications and communications initiatives.

O: Your resume includes leadership roles at municipal utilities in the West, rural and investor-owned utilities in the East, and a stint at the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. What have you learned from your diverse experiences in the industry, and what are some universal themes you’ve encountered?

GS: It's been quite a ride. In my 45 years in the energy field, I have worked in every electric utility business model. And I’ve also had the honor of experiencing a very wide range of employee and customer cultures — from New Jersey, to Navajo Nation, to New England, to Los Angeles, to the Southwest, to the Bay Area, and so on.

"Customer expectations vary greatly depending on location, culture, and demographics. But reliability, cost, and trust are always common themes."

Customer expectations vary greatly depending on location, culture, and demographics. But reliability, cost, and trust are always common themes. Trust in particular has a great deal to do with how customers view their utility. While it seems simple enough, this single issue can make or break a utility's effort to push ahead with technology, go green, build transmission or generation, or even just communicate. For me, what’s been most important is recognizing that I need to understand the political environment, the culture, and the demographics of the community that I serve.

O: Why is it an exciting time to be a utility leader? What should we watch out for next from Alameda Municipal Power?

GS: I think that for anyone who is truly engaged in utility issues, it has always been an exciting time to be a part of the industry. In the ‘60s, nuclear power was going to make energy “too cheap to meter.” In the ‘70s, two energy crises radically shifted our focus toward conservation. In the ‘80s, Three-Mile Island forever changed how we build and procure new sources of energy. In the ‘90s, we had deregulation and restructuring, and the 2000s brought the proliferation of "markets" and extraordinary technological transformation. And now we’re transitioning to the Internet of Things and figuring out big data.

"If we do it right, this will be the most significant transition that the utility business has ever seen."
All of this has made the utility industry a really gratifying place in which to work. This period in our history is probably the most exciting yet, because it will finally change how customers interact and view us as technologically savvy business partners. If we do it right, it will be the most significant transition that the utility business has ever seen — until, of course, the day when poles and wires become obsolete! As for Alameda Municipal Power, it is already one of the greenest utilities in the nation.  Don't be surprised to see us leverage technology to become one of the greenest utilities in the world.

 

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