Innovative ideas for every utility

The sporting life at Grant County PUD

Stephen Hill
Sr. Content Development Specialist

Derin Bluhm, chief technology officer at Grant County PUD, prepares for an interview at Customer Edge 2020

For sure there are high school sporting events in Grant County, a high desert farming community in central Washington State. However, from Derin Bluhm’s perspective, technology is the new favorite team sport, especially for the county’s public utility district.

When Bluhm arrived at Grant County Public Utility District two years ago, he found an agricultural based service area that was ready to grow, both in terms of reliability, and technology.

“At Grant County PUD we talk about technology transformation as a team sport,” says Bluhm, Grant County PUD’s chief technology officer. “We challenge the folks on the technology side to not just accept a request as an order to fulfill, but to challenge the drivers behind it.”

“When I arrived at Grant County PUD, I found a great old company with a lot of desire to overcome the pent-up demand for technology,” says Bluhm.

The technology developing for this central Washington State farming county brings a bevy of resources to the forefront, and for Bluhm, the equation is amazingly simple: upgrade and modernize.

“We’re fortunate in that we have a simple set of problems, compared to some of the more complicated regulatory environments,” says Bluhm. “We’re a PUD in a small community with a really large service territory, but a simple business.”

The bulk of the power generation capacity goes to the agriculture sector that dominates Grant County. No time-of-use rates, no exotic distributed generation, just simple, low-cost hydropower generation. There are some industrial and commercial customers, but according to Bluhm, the farmers, and the agriculture community, drive the decisions made at Grant County PUD.

The prescient decision is to upgrade and modernize, and the game plan is amazingly simple: a five-year technology transformation roadmap. But as in most team sports, the execution is the tricky part.

“We have the simple problem of modernizing our infrastructure,” says Bluhm. “As a technologist, it’s exciting to have these problems. The analytics will drive the solutions, and the new business models, and that’s very interesting to me.”

And again, the modernizing of infrastructure is the easy part. Changing business behavior will be the hard part, especially at a PUD that’s delivered electricity the same way for decades. That age-old axiom of new technology doesn’t change things, people making new business decisions changes things.

“Coming from a technology transformation background I knew very clearly that change management would be critical,” says Bluhm. “And that’s not change by ‘Hey, we’re going to train on this new system.’ “

As most technology experts know, deploying a new system doesn’t change the organization. People adapting to new critical business decisions changes a company, organization or any group. And that new implementation will greatly enhance Grant County’s ability to serve customers.

“We’re developing a data lake to collect all this data, and then build an analytics platform,” says Bluhm. “It’s basically a complete restructuring of how we treat technology, and implement it across the organization. And because we’re a small company, we developed a cloud first mentality”

That cloud capability at Grant County allows utility IT personnel to learn newer systems, instead of constantly updating and redeploying the same technology. It also creates continuous learning within the IT group.

“By moving to cloud based services, we go from big-step change deployments to every 120 days we get a new set of capabilities added to the baseline product,” says Bluhm.

Ultimately the data and cloud technologies streamline business processes, give customers better access to the utility, and provides transparency to Grant County’s operations. Customers at the rural utility district also sit on its board of directors. In other words, customers are truly driving Grant County’s technology implementation.

“We want our technology to be both invisible and indispensable,” says Bluhm.

The technology may be invisible, but at Grant County PUD the progress is undeniable.

Hear Derin Bluhm talk about Grant County PUD’s cloud-first philosophy in this short video (2.5 min.).

Read more Customer Edge 2020 articles:

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