Smart Energy Use

Collaboration fosters innovation

Moving through our busy lives, it can be hard to stop and take a look at what is changing in our industry. From distributed generation to electric vehicles, the marketplace is filled with technologies that are bringing new momentum to electrification. Taking a walk around the expo floor of the Electric Power Research Institute’s inaugural Electrification Conference this summer, I was inspired by the possibilities — the range of companies and institutions interested in a more electric future, and by all the innovation with a technology that has been around for 150 years.

Similarly, public power’s own research program, Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments — DEED — has evolved since 1980, and there has been an increase in the types of companies and organizations that members work with on innovative projects.

In managing the DEED program, much of what I do is to foster this matchmaking between utilities, universities, and companies. From startups to associations and like-minded utilities, collaborative projects help bring new perspectives that make for more compelling innovation.

The diversity of collaborations reflects our shifting interests as an industry. Once every two years, we survey DEED members on topics of most interest to pursue through research and development. While energy efficiency and demand response have remained at the top of the list, other key areas show progress in the field. Ten years ago, renewables topped the list. Today, top interests are distributed energy resources, storage, and smart grid.

One of the exciting things about DEED grants is that they allow utilities to work with smaller companies to test a technology or innovation they might be trying to bring to market. Often, this is a win-win: The public power utility gets to be on the leading edge and the company gains valuable insights into real-world implementation.

Public power utilities can also act as connectors for innovation. For example, CPS Energy in Texas is developing an incubator lab and conference center focused on new energy. By building a space to bring people together, they are spurring innovation in the community — allowing people to get enthusiastic about energy opportunities and careers and coming up with ideas that could impact the industry.

DEED also becomes a springboard for larger projects. For example, in 1995, we supported the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, a consortium of academic, industry, and government entities to develop a software to model power systems. Over the years, additional public power utilities received funding to enhance the software. The software eventually took off as the PowerWorld Simulator, which is now used by companies in 68 countries.   

DEED members have completed several projects with EPRI, with which we have built a good relationship over the years (in fact, EPRI’s senior vice president of research and development, Arshad Mansoor, entered the energy industry thanks to a DEED scholarship). One such collaborative project is with the New York Power Authority and EPRI to use a software tool to figure out where storage infrastructure or technology development might be needed or most useful from both a cost-benefit and grid impact perspective.

In public power, joint action agencies and state associations continue to play an important role in fostering innovative projects. The agency or association can recruit members for pilot projects, and then share key findings with other members. For example, American Municipal Power is teaming up with the Smart Electric Power Alliance to develop an EV program planning toolkit, which will focus on creating an easy way for public power utilities to either assess the economic impact of electrifying its fleets or show customers the cost of purchasing an EV.

It’s good to pause and reflect on all the change in the electric industry. Together, we can stay ahead of change and continue to foster collaborations for innovation.

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