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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Getting to Know Ben Ettlinger, Expert in the Digital Utility Community

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By connecting with and listening to the voices who have made immense impacts on the utility industry in the past, we can start to make sense of perhaps what the next steps tomorrow and in the coming years will be. With that in mind, Energy Central is proud of the depth and variety of the careers of those who make up our renowned network of experts. In order to ensure that you, the Energy Central Community Member, get the maximum value from these experts that are sharing their insights all around the platform, we’ve continued our “Power Perspectives™ Getting to Know Your Experts” interview series. This week we’re thrilled to speak with Ben Ettlinger, Manager of Digital Analytics at the New York Power Authority and expert in our Digital Utility Community.

Ben’s career, as you’ll read, started at NYPA in 1992 and has seen him working in and overseeing many different teams in the years since. As the largest state-owned utility in the country, the perspective from NYPA that Ben brings to the community is an invaluable resource. To learn more about just how much experience and expertise Ben brings on the table, read on for our conversation for this interview series:

Matt Chester: The value of these interviews is so that readers in the community can really understand how much experience and expertise that our network of experts really brings to the table. So with that in mind, can you give a broad overview of your career as it relates to utilities and what your particular areas of focus have been?

Ben Ettlinger: I began my career at NYPA 28 years ago, joining as a logical data modeler. Drilling down to the nitty-gritty of entities and attributes, providing descriptions and other metadata allowed me to learn the utility industry from the logical ground up. I had the opportunity to work on models spanning the gamut of NYPA’s business from the nuclear side, back office, utility billing, energy trading, generation and load bids, environmental, GIS, warehouse, risk, and even travel and other service applications. This also afforded me the opportunity to get out of the headquarters office and spend time at our hydro, thermal, and nuclear plants (when we still owned them); transmission nerve center; and software vendors.

Because of my familiarity with the company’s data, I was asked to assist in a major billing system conversion to SAP. After the success in the SAP conversion, I was moved over into the SAP area, heading up the SAP Business Warehouse effort.  Here I began managing, for the most part, SAP billing-related projects. I was able to learn the complexities of utility billing and tariffs and that the electricity is marketed in all different flavors: hydropower, peak, off-peak, replacement power, blackstart, spinning reserves, reserve, etc.

Later, I moved over into the IT PMO and eventually managed it for about a year. A few years ago, when utilities were learning about analytics, I was asked to start up a Digital Analytics Group.  At first, I balked. I didn’t even know how to spell algorithm, let alone write any. Python was a snake in the Bronx Zoo, R a subway that went to Queens, Kudu was the horn I have on top of my living room bookshelf, and Hadoop was something I was afraid to ask what it is. I was intrigued though, and after a lifetime of hating math, here was an opportunity to make up for it.

I must say except for maybe creating data models, this was the most rewarding part of my career: building a successful group of data scientists that are able to do amazing things with data and discovering so many fascinating things in our business.

In the last few months, I have climbed up to the crow’s nest of NYPA, focusing my sights on emerging technologies and identifying those which relate to utilities, and which would make the most sense for NYPA to pursue.

 

MC: You’ve been with NYPA for many years and been responsible for a wide variety of areas in that role. What do you think has been the most valuable part of moving between different positions within the same organization? What sort of perspective has that given you, and does it inform your views on digital utility practices?

BE: The most valuable part of moving between different positions is the ability to be resilient, switch gears, and plow into the new tasks at hand. I also believe being passionate and cheerful about what you are doing also helps be successful. I tell the high school students that I mentor: “to have a satisfying career you have to like what you’re doing, whatever it is you do.” You also have to be friendly. One of my favorite mottos I try to live by is: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!” That may go against the grain of what you are taught in business school to get ahead. But, to me, it’s more important to try to leave any encounter with smiles than frowns.  Respect every individual you meet. You can learn something from everyone. An important part of being respectful is patience. A little patience with others goes a very long way. To me, stepping on people, backstabbing ,and underhanded methods to gain in anything-- whether its work, home, or on the roads-- may get you where you want to go. But to me, you’re a big loser.  Aggression is just a cover-up for one’s inabilities to correctly deal with situations.

 

MC: Analytic modeling has also become an important part of your work and the operations at NYPA. What value can a utility gain from diving into these types of analytics? What’s being missed by utilities who aren’t investing in them now?

BE: Analytics is the future of every business. It helps you learn about your customers, your product, your business practices, and probably most of all spawns innovation that helps you remain competitive. Despite utility rate increase requests, we are in an era of falling electricity prices from a utility profitability standpoint. Between this and the increased costs of generating green power, a utility has to learn how to become more efficient and service its customers better. Analytics is already helping with better asset management and more efficient operations. For example, one study we did was to analyze whether it is more efficient to run a thermal plant in the summer at peak output with chillers running or at lower generation without the chillers running. Utilities missing the analytics opportunities may very well have trouble surviving in the future.

MC: As you look across the broader utility industry, do you see enough being done with regards to digital utility practices and maximizing the opportunity that new digital technologies afford? Or are leaders still being overly cautious and slow to act in this space?

BE: No. I think most utility leaders recognize the opportunities offered with digitization. Anyone who doesn’t is living in a cocoon.  Analytics is affecting everything: retail, communications, medicine, and even professional and amateur sports. Just the other day I let one of my colleagues who coaches youth soccer know about a new soccer shoe with embedded sensors to help coaches make better players. All the large utilities have digitization programs. Some more than others. Utilities that do not take on things like digital forensics, asset management analytics, etc. will fall behind.

 

MC: As an active and trusted Energy Central expert, can you comment on what value you get from the Energy Central platform and community? How is this outlet beneficial to you and how do you try to use it to benefit the community?

BE: The value is in the exchange of ideas and the ability to present problems or questions others may have come across before and have resolutions or answers. 


 

Thanks to Ben for taking to time to let the Energy Central community get to know him better and for consistently providing valuable insights to the site. Be sure to keep an eye out for him answering questions, submitting content, and being a knowledgeable presence on the platform.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

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