Building a utility culture of innovation: Sharing ideas, data and risk

From climate change to rapidly changing new technologies, public power utilities are creating road maps for how to optimize and implement systems to achieve myriad goals, including emissions reductions, safety, and operational efficiency. Driving this change ultimately requires developing highly collaborative teams of public power utility staff who are supported to innovate.

Collaboration fosters innovation

When the Burlington Electric Department, the public power utility that serves Burlington, Vermont, set the goal of having net zero fossil fuel emissions by 2030, it also unleashed the brainpower and creativity of its 118 employees.

Darren Springer, general manager at BED, said the net zero initiative wasn’t just an ambitious strategic plan to address climate change. The utility commission also wanted it to be a platform for new perspectives and fresh ideas.

“We wanted to know what our frontline employees were seeing and wanted to give them the opportunity to guide the net zero goal,” he said. “We tried to make it a very bottom-up approach.”

The utility tapped into that internal brainpower in 2018 with its inaugural Innovation Cup, an employee-driven competition to come up with actionable ideas to bolster safety, achieve net zero emissions in the city, and strengthen productivity.

“Honestly, I was skeptical about how many people would participate and what results we might get,” Springer said. “I thought people would participate and there would be some ideas, but the results far exceeded our expectations. The ideas were very, very thoughtful. You could tell people put a lot of work and thought into them. It fostered an interdisciplinary work that produced ideas that we hadn’t ever thought about.”

The 2018 Innovation Cup winner came from a team of four employees who hatched the idea for a new ridesharing partnership between CarShare Vermont and Greenride Bikeshare.

BED customers who purchase an electric vehicle with a utility incentive are eligible to receive a free Greenride Bikeshare membership, and customers who purchase a new electric bike using the utility’s e-bike rebate are eligible to receive a free membership in CarShare Vermont’s “Share-a-Little” plan or financial support to offset the cost of membership in the plan.

BED’s focus on innovation started before the inaugural Innovation Cup.

In 2015, the utility formed the Burlington Electric Center for Innovation, a clearinghouse to cross-pollinate ideas with teams from the utility’s finance, information technology, policy and planning, and sustainability departments.

“We really want to make everyone responsible for tackling innovation and getting us to net zero,” Springer said. “Whether it’s a line crewman or someone working in a facility, we want everyone to connect and do their part.”

Data seeds innovation

To optimize adoption of new technologies, and best harness the massive amount of data that comes with them, public power utilities are tearing down the cubicle walls that once divided departments and are bringing together a diverse set of in-house experts from a variety of departments.

Sandi Joralemon, manager of the newly formed Data Strategy Group at New Braunfels Utilities in Texas, has assembled a multidisciplinary team to manage the tsunami of data that is coming at the utility. The public power utility serves about 45,000 electric customers in the city, which is about 30 miles northeast of San Antonio.

NBU gathers data from a host of sensors deployed across its electric, water and sewer networks. It also collects customer usage data from its advanced metering infrastructure as well as internal work orders, financial records, and just about any piece of information recorded by the utility.

Joralemon’s team develops visual platforms that provide an analytical window into what’s happening in the organization.

“The whole point of doing this is to provide information for better decision-making,” she said. “Our preference is to have a lot of minds in the room and to talk to a lot of our ‘internal customers,’” — that is, employees from different departments.

Joralemon’s team operates in a kind of perpetual feedback loop. A department manager will present the team with a problem, and NBU’s analytical team will pull data from around the organization to help solve that problem. With data in hand, the analytics team goes back to the manager to tweak and sharpen the data.

The team then puts that information into a visual platform, such as a dashboard on a laptop or a simple PDF, that works for a department manager or executive. 

And then the process starts all over again with more questions: Is it working for you? What else do you need? How can the data be presented more effectively?

NBU is working toward allowing an employee from any department to review and analyze relevant data and present ideas to Joralemon and her team.

Joralemon says innovation is on the minds of every employee at NBU.

“We foster innovation by talking about it ... a lot,” she said with a laugh. “We talk about it in meetings, in the hallway — every chance we get. I am bringing it up any time that I see an opportunity.”

Trust leads to innovation

A culture of innovation starts with trust, said Steve Wright, general manager of Chelan County Public Utility District, which serves 52,146 customers in central Washington state.

“When you are taking on innovation, you are also taking on risk, so there needs to be a high level of trust within the community, because sometimes things may not work out so well,” Wright said.

Wright has been GM at Chelan since 2013. He joined after working more than three decades at the Bonneville Power Administration, including 12 years as administrator of the 2,700 employees at the federal power marketing agency.

Other than having the trust of the community the utility serves, its employees also have to know that they can take a risk, and that if an idea fails, it won’t reflect negatively on their careers.

“If a person is going to step out on a limb with an idea, they have to know that management isn’t going to saw that limb off if the idea doesn’t work,” Wright said.

Chelan’s service territory covers the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains in eastern Washington. It’s dry, high desert country that stretches from the Columbia River through the dense forests of the Cascade Range. The danger of sparking a wildfire is ever-present, especially in the summer months, when daytime temperatures can routinely hover near triple digits.

In 2014, the utility changed the way it recharges sections of its transmission system if a line automatically trips off after contacting a tree or tree limb. To help prevent sparking a wildfire, utility lineworkers now remotely control and monitor the automatic reclosure feature of the line. This gives operators a greater awareness of the line’s condition and lowers the risk of igniting a fire.

“That idea came from an employee,” Wright said. “Nobody asked; it wasn’t a top-down decision.”

After the utility deployed an array of sensors at its Rocky Reach, Rock Island, and Lake Chelan dams, engineers were inundated with data, some of which dam operators had never seen before.

It was John Yale, a hydro plant manager with Chelan PUD, who saw the value in comparing the data Chelan gathers with other hydro projects around the country.

“[Yale] said if we could compare the data with other projects, it could make a big difference,” Wright said.

The utility responded in 2016 by partnering with the Southern Company to form the Hydropower Research Institute, a data bank of standardized operational data to help manufacturers, researchers and utilities digitally enable the hydro industry.

“HRI was really important on our journey, because it was our first step in really trying something innovative and taking a risk,” Wright said. “It was a way to test the level of trust we had with our board and the community. We had to put some money into it, so the support we got really gave us confidence to take further risks.”

In July, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Energy joined HRI. The institute’s partners now own more than 40% of the country’s hydroelectric capacity.

Wright said “ideas die in bureaucracies,” which is why he set aside $50,000 from Chelan’s budget for an innovation fund. “If you have a creative idea, send it to me — no bureaucracy — and we’ll see if can get done.”

But a culture of innovation doesn’t form overnight, he warned.

“I’m not a fan of big structured programs: ‘Everyone with an idea submit it by this date,’” Wright said. “It takes a couple of years of work to build a culture of innovation. You don’t just say ‘We’ve changed; we felt this way yesterday and today we feel this way.’ … It takes time and trust to build a culture of innovation.”