The word “innovation” has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and I understand why. As technology changes rapidly, we must embrace the new. This need to embrace the new has been on full display as we have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as a country, as public power utilities, and as your national trade association. It was on display when we began instituting additional safety procedures for our workers such as masks, social distancing, and sanitation practices back in March. These new processes, as well as additional steps like sequestering control room operators and contact tracing, might seem like old hat now that we are at the end of July (as of this writing).
By deploying these new processes, we were able to keep the lights on for our customers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among public power’s 93,000 workers.
Based on the Merriam-Webster definition of innovation, our pandemic response has been highly innovative.
- a new idea, method, or device
- the introduction of something new
Of course, innovation has been part of the electric sector since well before the pandemic.
There’s a third meaning of innovation that seems to underlie our discussions around the term. I would posit that much of what we think of as innovative in the electric sector is about the use of technology to improve operational efficiency or enhance our ability to deploy intermittent renewable energy, storage, or electric vehicle charging infrastructure, among other efforts. These are also valid uses of the term and are certainly uses that public power utilities have embraced and even initiated in some cases. In fact, for 40 years, the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments program, aka DEED, has provided seed money for public power utilities to explore the technologies mentioned above.
The history of DEED’s grants and scholarships shows us that innovation is spurred by the public power people who want to improve upon the status quo. While there is often a technological component to this improvement, in some cases the innovation is about improving processes — creating more efficiency in meeting our ultimate goal of serving our customers. DEED has awarded grants to utilities that propose to improve customer outreach and communication in some key way. For example, Redding Electric Utility in California received a grant to develop a community engagement toolkit back in 2005, and in the past few years, Gainesville Regional Utilities in Florida examined how to better engage low-income residents in water and energy audits.
Just like the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention, the public power state of mind sparks innovation. Our innovation could be related to our cost-based electric service, local governance or, in some cases, our small size. We want to serve our customers reliably, affordably, safely, and with strong environmental stewardship. Balancing these four pillars is a challenge and requires ongoing innovation on the part of the public power workforce — from the lineworkers to the customer service reps to the control room operators to the CEOs.
As demonstrated in this issue of Public Power magazine, public power and innovation go hand in hand.