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Planning for the future; dealing with the right now

THE SIXTH ANNUAL KNOWLEDGE EXECUTIVE SUMMIT FOUND us on Amelia Island, just outside of Jacksonville, Florida. Recognized as one of the utility industry's most valuable and prestigious forums for chief information officers, the summit last year expanded its scope to include other mission-critical utility executives in customer service and operations.

With mounting political and environmental pressure, increasing energy demand and the potential for rising fuel prices, the utility industry is faced with making some costly investment decisions based on desired outcomes that will depend largely upon multiple factors. As a result, the intelligent utility of the future means more than intelligent endpoints on the grid. It also means the intelligent integration of the customer with IT and operations. These three areas are moving to work as one team to address the serious challenges and opportunities facing the intelligent utility over the next several years and beyond.

Through small roundtable discussions, interactive leadership forums and networking opportunities over two days, top executives in all three areas noted above are able to gain new perspective and share their own knowledge.

Here, we'd like to share with the rest of the industry a bit of what was discussed throughout the summit. In the coming issues of Intelligent Utility magazine, we will endeavor to continue the conversation even further, delving deeper into particularly intense subject areas first discussed at Knowledge2011.

Be willing to take measured risks
Host utility JEA's CEO Jim Dickenson provided keynote leadership at the beginning of the summit, recounting four decades of technological change in the electric utility industry, using a slide rule to illustrate his point. The slide rule, he said, had been his critical tool, and his father's, upon graduation in 1973 and 1952, respectively.

Today, the challenge is planning for the future while dealing with the "right now," Dickenson said.

He offered six mega trends: an aging workforce, the carbon capacity conflict, the nexus of water and power production, the evolution of the utility business model, the advent of intelligent infrastructure and customer engagement. Amid these unrelenting shifts in the industry, grid modernization will require a departure from the excessive caution that once was the hallmark of the power industry, he noted.

"You have to be willing to take measured risks," Dickenson said. "You cannot always use a bottomline business approach.

"We're all enamored with technology," he added. "You need to ask yourself whether you're getting the most value out of your base systems. We call them our 12 essential systems. The business side must change and the business side and technology must be engaged. Know what you want to accomplish. Deploy your best people."

Roundtables on overarching themes
While some roundtable sessions during the summit were broken down into CIO, customer service and operations topics, there were also a number of integrated roundtable sessions that involved participants from all three areas. These small sessions encouraged open discussion among peers, with the understanding that their comments would not be publicly attributed.

Sessions covered topics such as the strategic versus tactical transformation of IT; addressing low-income customers in today's utility climate; how social media is changing the customer dynamic; cyber and physical security issues for operations; strategies and considerations when building out a smart grid communications infrastructure; bring your own device (BYOD) thoughts and strategies; planning for the future with smart grid/meters; skills necessary for the workforce of the future/generational change; strategies for NERC CIP requirements and beyond; mobility and customer engagement; how data visualization is being used; demand response and the roles of IT versus customer service versus operations; and best practices in IT/OT collaboration.

Often, discussions occurring in one roundtable session carried over, in part, to other roundtables across the summit, a good indication of the peer-to-peer discussions being encouraged across the three silos.

Smart meters and data
A session on the future of smart grid and interval meters confirmed utilities are at disparate points in their deployments, as well as in their use of the meters beyond meter-to-cash applications. One municipal utility is just embarking on a pilot program to see how strategic use of smart meters can help hone its outage reporting and management efforts-a potential angle for customer engagement-while another, an investor-owned utility, had crunched the numbers and decided it could not currently justify the deployment of advanced metering infrastructure. Yet another utility said it had completed deployment of interval meters to its residential customers, and will use the data to reach self-imposed energy efficiency and renewable goals while maintaining high customer satisfaction.

A question from the session moderator-Could a smarter grid contribute to improved SAIDI (system average interruption duration index) numbers?-elicited a mixture of responses. One participant felt that AMI could improve the accuracy of outage information and make responses more efficient, and another said that, in a major outage, smart switching can reduce the impacts on the grid as well as on SAIDI numbers. One possible unintended consequence of adding intelligence to the grid, however, is that while SAIDI numbers today are estimated from various values, greater exactitude could initially make those numbers worse. Would that lead regulators to tighten oversight?

Addressing low-income customer needs
Advanced technologies don't always mean a lot to low-income, cash customers without a lot of trust in their local utility. Participants in this roundtable discussion came up with a lot of questions for one another, and a few suggestions, as well.

"We pull every lever we can to help them meet their bills," said one. "We have people who can't pay, but then they won't learn to conserve," said another. Some utilities have found the response rate to be low to marketing efforts, because their low-income customers don't trust the utility company. With the trust issue paramount-how do you get a customer to open something coming from the utility, when they don't want to look at a bill they're not sure they can pay-at least one utility suggested doing the initial outreach through other agencies.

"The economy's not great, and [low-income assistance] programs are being slashed at federal and state levels. Do utilities become the social agency? Who fills that gap?" one roundtable participant asked. "There is a certain bill amount where it becomes too expensive for people to pay off, so we want to get to people before they hit that threshold," another said.

Hiring the workforce of the future
This integrated roundtable hit the track running, sharing ideas, concerns, challenges and potential solutions. As one utility representative posed a question to the group, another two or three had suggestions as to how they handled it within their own organization. Here were some of the high points:

  • It is important to build a primary and secondary knowledge program around specific systems, and to do a lot more documentation so that people with the right skill sets can be hired without those people having to "take ownership" of that system. (There seems to be some reluctance by the new breed of utility employee to take ownership of a system, preferring to rotate from responsibility to responsibility.)
  • Train in redundancy so you can keep the system going when some-one leaves. The new person in the seat then validates the documentation for the system, what's there, what's missing, and what's needed.
  • Challenges to hiring: IT analysts are difficult to find or hire in some areas of the country. That's also the case in terms of power engineers, as they're now all computer engineers. Having the ability to bring in additional staff (even when needed) is not always possible. And when you can, the new challenge is, how do you meet a new employee's needs? Suggestions included perks, flexible working hours, and the opportunity to "bring your own device" or to telecommute.


"We need to recognize that society is changing," noted one participant. "We have to understand that our new people are looking for a quality of life that work does not completely provide."




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