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Getting to Know Your Expert Interview Series: Stuart McCafferty, IoT Architect At Black & Veatch And Valued Expert In The Digital Utility Community

Energy Central

Following the first few entries into the ‘Welcome New Expert’ interview series, which can be read here, we also want to highlight some of the long-standing and deeply valued experts who have been an integral part of the Energy Central community for a significant amount of time. With that said, we’re going to kick off this sister series, called ‘Getting to Know Your Experts’ with a conversation with Stuart McCafferty, an expert in the Digital Utility Group.

You may recognize Stu from his many insightful comments on digital utility topics or from his tremendous article series on Energy IoT from earlier this year. Stu is an IoT architect for Black & Veatch Management Consulting and he’s a perfect person with which to start this interview series thanks to his passion, his deep knowledge, and his continued contributions to the Energy Central community.

Read on to learn more about what brought him to this digital utility world, to Energy Central as a platform, and to learn what type of value he can provide to the Energy Central community members thanks to his knowledge:

Matt Chester: To start, I want to thank you for the amount of time and dedication you’ve provided to the Energy Central community as a regular contributor and a trusted expert in the digital utility community. Can you give a brief traced outline of your career path and how you got involved with digital utility topics and why you think it’s an area of the energy sector that deserves such high focus at this point in time?

Stu McCafferty: I think my background is no less weird than a lot of peoples’ backgrounds in this industry.  I went to the Air Force Academy, spent time in active duty, then my first job was in aerospace doing 6 degree of freedom ICBM simulations.  After that, I wrote rea- time telemetry software and 3D visualization for cruise missiles.  I wrote software with some of the most talented programmers I have ever known and was fortunate to learn from some of the very best. 

But as my career progressed, I found myself doing more design and management than coding, mostly in aerospace and real-time oilfield drilling operations.  I was pulled into the utility industry in the early 2000s when the company I was working for was bidding on an AMI project and I pitched a service-oriented architecture.  Next thing I knew I was working as the tech lead on the first DOE smart grid project, the Modern Grid Initiative.  I was again really fortunate to work with some of our industry’s best, visionaries that loved technology as much as I do.  The rest is pretty normal: program manager and operations VP on the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP); VP of EnergyIoT at Hitachi in their microgrid business unit; and now at Black & Veatch, consulting on DER integration, EnergyIoT architecture, DSO strategies, and DERMS independent assessments.

 

MC: When we talk about the ‘digital utility,’ we’re talking about aspects of the industry that were never possible before smart technology and analysis of these invaluable sets of data. In your opinion, have we reached a tipping point where the focus of utility professionals is sufficiently on these aspects of the industry? Or are there still holdouts and legacy ways of thinking in the way, and if so, how do we go about continuing to move the needle?

SM: We are either at the tipping point or nearly there.  And, yes, there are certainly still holdouts, although that crowd is getting smaller and smaller.  The edge is accelerating faster than the other layers.  It is creating chaos and opportunity.  Customers have more and more choices, and we are seeing a rapidly advancing movement towards more energy independence away from utility monopolies and bulk generation.  Clean energy policies and technology advances are driving DER adoption and breaking our centralized command and control paradigm.  Cybersecurity threats jeopardize our electrical infrastructure and ability to deliver electricity reliably and safely.  Utility business models are under pressure and new business models are emerging.  We are ripe for an Uber-like disruption.  Expect big changes ahead.  We need to invest in digitalization and distributed technologies.  We are the poster child for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Just like many other industries, IoT is an edge-driven paradigm change that is rapidly maturing and has very compelling advantages over today’s top-down, system-centric, siloed, centralized architecture.

 

MC: Along with the immense opportunity the digitization of all aspects of the utility sector, there of course come challenges, namely in terms of cybersecurity. How can utilities best ensure that customer data is protected and the smart grid won’t be vulnerable to attack?  

SM: One thing that has always driven me crazy is the “Chicken Little” security experts who say the sky is falling and offer no ideas on how to mitigate that.  But, the reality is that we are vulnerable.  We already know of some successful infrastructure hacks and are probably unaware of many more.  I have always believed that our centralized systems are the riskiest, with the potential of catastrophic cascading events.  The move to more distributed systems will certainly increase the attack surfaces, but it also allows us to use analytics to detect bad actors and isolate grid sections and allow the rest of the grid to operate unhindered.

MC: Undoubtedly, some of the topics you spend the most time thinking about and working on are areas that were not even possible 10-20 years ago. With that in mind, do you have any predictions about how the utility sector will look in another 10-20 years? Do you think we’re going to be able to anticipate some of the changes and new technologies that far out and start preparing for them today?

SM: Yeah, of course I do!  If you read my articles, I talk about Ray Kurtzweil’s Singularity in numerous places.  If his prediction is true, we will have reached the point where computers, or artificial intelligence, has reached or surpassed humans in intelligence in that 20-year time period.  That’s hard to get your head around.  But, suffice to say that our grid will be much smarter.  AI will drive grid operations, and it will be out on the edge.  PV and other clean energy generation will dominate and will be extremely efficient.  The ability to island grid sections, neighborhoods, and buildings will be prevalent.  The option to purchase gas-powered vehicles will be very small or won’t exist at all.  In 10 years, I think we are still figuring out the transition from analog to digital and centralized to distributed paradigms, but we will have made a lot of progress by then.  Singularity could really have a profound effect on our grid over the longer time period.  In the meantime, we will see some crazy disruption and steady progress towards a clean energy ecosystem and a highly distributed IoT future.

 

MC: You’ve made yourself quite a presence on the Energy Central Community, and again we’re so thankful that you spend your time sharing your insights with the rest of the community. Can you talk briefly about what value you get from the Energy Central platform? What keeps you coming back and staying engaged with this community?

SM: Energy Central is unique for our industry.  The articles primarily come from the actual people that are out in the work force having to solve the problems, creating innovative approaches, and sharing their experiences.  There are some amazing contributions that our friends and peers contribute on a daily basis.  It is my go-to website for real information on how our industry is solving problems today.

 

MC: Is there anything else you’d like the community to know?

SM: I have been thinking about grid architecture for many years now.  Eamonn McCormick, David Forfia, and I spent an enormous amount of time developing an EnergyIoT architecture that we published as a 6-part series earlier this year on Energy Central.  This industry is ripe for disruption.  I’d say what we published is mostly right, and the majority of the pieces already exist to move to a data-centric, event-driven, elastic, rapid DER-integration architecture.  We really need a major cloud solution like Azure or AWS to recognize the opportunity and create an electric industry DevOps and abstraction layer.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to read through those articles, please do so! (Editor note: you can find the entire series here: https://www.energycentral.com/topics/tags/call-action-series)

 


 

Thanks once again to Stu for sharing even more of his time in answering my questions, in addition to his general presence on the Energy Central platform. When you see Stu throwing in his two cents around the community, now you’ll know the massive experience and great insight that’s informing those comments, so don’t hesitate to ask him questions or even just say hi. To read more interviews with our Energy Central experts, click here; if you’re interested in being considered to be an expert yourself then you can reach out to me directly or you can apply here.

Discussions

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Sep 16, 2019 5:42 pm GMT

I'm always tuned into what Stu has to say. He's one of those original thinkers on EC that takes the time to research and formulate his thoughts and concisley comminicate the main points he wants to emphasize. The signal to noise ratio is always top notch when Stu speaks! 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 16, 2019 9:57 pm GMT

Couldn't agree more, we're incredibly lucky to have Stu in our community!

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Sep 17, 2019 7:24 pm GMT

Thanks guys.  That picture of me might be a little dated.  Thanks for using it, Matt.  :)

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 17, 2019 7:39 pm GMT

Always happy to update a photo if there's one you prefer!

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