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How fast can a utility evolve?

That’s a leading question in our title, we know—a succinct but open-ended one. So, here’s your succinct but open-ended answer: As fast as a utility can innovate. That’s our simple summary of “The Digital Utility Relationship with Innovation and Reliability” session at DistribuTECH 2018 conference.

If you only have five seconds to read this article, that’s your takeaway. If you have more than five seconds and would like some great insights on just how to make that innovation actually happen, take a few more minutes and read on.

“It took more than 45 years for the electric utility industry to reach 50 million customers,” said Bradley R. Williams, Vice-President, Industry Strategy, Oracle Utilities, in the session opening. “Twitter passed that in two years.”

And that new Twitter speed is impacting that old electric utility industry, making the entire industry push, pull and change a little faster.

That change is driven by three factors, according to Matthew Ketschke, Vice-President of Distributed Resources Integration, ConEdison: technology that’s being developed (especially at the grid edge), policy globally and locally, and customer interest.

“The interest among customers—at least a subset—has changed. There is now a subset of consumers really interested in engaging in their energy in new ways,” he added.

Bryan Pham, Senior Engineering Manager, Southern California Edison (SCE), added to Ketschke’s focus on policy with an emphasis on clean energy. (In fact, SCE, has a white paper on the subject titled “The Clean Power and Electrification Pathway.”)

Pham noted that SCE can’t meet those clean power and policy goals without better tech and automation.

Williams posed the question to his panelists about whether we are really thinking through all the variables of technology before we implement them: What are the implications? Should we really learn as we go? Do we have to?

Ketschke agreed that, yes, there’s a tension between innovation and reliability sometimes.

“As we introduce new things to this system, it’s always possible those things will have consequences,” Ketschke admitted, pointing to the challenges in updated old systems to fit new thinking.  

“One of the fun things to talk about with this is microgrids,” chimed in Doug Houseman, Grid Modernization Lead, Burns & McDonnell, giving a personal example of his own at this innovation/reliability battle. “It’s super sophisticated to turn on and off a microgrid correctly, but it seems simple. The innovation is great. The island that you can island is wonderful, but there are a lot of systems to put in place to do this right.”

Pham added that, in the beginning of all technology changes, that antagonistic relationship between innovation and reliability always exists, what we have to do is work to make that smoother, to get past each implication and potential problem one at a time.

“We try to test everything as thoroughly as possible at SCE,” Pham added. “But no one’s record is perfect. It’s not possible.”

Williams followed up his innovation vs. reliability question with a second on developing the right recipe for conservative utilities to embrace faster times to see value (faster times to market in the retail sense).

“We have traditionally had this general sense of risk aversion in this industry, but as you think about the innovation space, there will be a three-way partnership that’s necessary,” noting that those are utilities, regulators and vendors. “You need all of those working together to make things work.”

Pham agreed at that risk aversion culture but revealed that SCE is trying to work this faster with real-condition labs and in-depth research, which allows them to accelerate with a “fail faster” idea in a controlled environment that doesn’t impact the customer.

Before Houseman answered Williams’ question himself he asked the audience: How many of you have a cell phone? All hands went up. He followed up with: Now, how many of you read detailed technical white papers before you bought that cell phone? No hands when up.

Houseman’s third question: Now, if you knew you had to keep that phone for 40 to 60 years, how many of you would have done that research? All hands returned.

His point? That regulation and requirements from policy owners and stakeholders on longevity has created a stranglehold on getting tech up and out faster. His suggestion? More R&D capability to allow for much quicker change and capability in the real world.

“We want to go faster? We need to have more places we can play, where we can break things—in a place safe for us to break things so we can understand what happens with failure,” he added.

So, a better, smarter, faster, more evolved utility has to do one thing first (and a lot): fall on its face.

And then learn.

Because, with all innovation, failure happens. But failure isn’t bad … if it doesn’t impact your customer.

 

Read more from DistribuTECH 2018: 

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