Many of the names and faces working in public power have stayed the same for decades. It is a pleasure to see everyone from year to year at our conferences and other industry events, to know we can rely on long-held partners and vendors to deliver the services and supplies we need, and to join together on advocating for issues of importance.
Yet familiarity can breed contentment with the status quo, which, if unchecked, can result in a hesitance — or even resistance — to change. As the technology we use changes the way we do everything in our personal lives, from how we buy groceries to how we view the menus at restaurants and stay in touch with our friends and families, it also means we have needed to (or still need to) update our utility operations. In our sector, the pace of this change is quick — and the scale immense.
How we communicate with our staff and customers is no longer just about the messages we send out, but how a network of utility technologies — from advanced metering infrastructure to system sensors — relays data and information. As new types of energy-related technologies emerge, whether that means smart thermostats and connected water heaters at customers’ homes or utility-scale storage options, a utility’s technological functions and capabilities will determine how much value such technologies can bring our communities — and whether or not we can support local energy goals.
If technology is an enabler, then utilities’ adoption of technologies will be the bridge for our communities to change. On a recent podcast, Jeff Lyash, head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, summed it up well: “The difference between aspiration and execution is innovation — it’s technology. … If we want to go farther, faster, we need to invest in these technologies and get them at a scale and a cost that can maintain that balance between affordability, reliability, resiliency and clean.”
Because of their size vis-à-vis others in the industry, their longevity in the marketplace, or their desire to protect customers from speculative endeavors, public power utilities can sometimes be painted as less innovative, but I would argue against that characterization, especially based on recent history. Looking back even just 10 years ago, the technology central to many utilities’ operations today was only just emerging or was nonexistent. Very few utilities had AMI installed; only a handful had connected substations and SCADA via broadband networks; battery storage systems were in the early stages or not at utility-scale; and cybersecurity protocols and guidance were not as robust nor particularly sector-specific.
Public power providers have been at the forefront of making all these technologies workable within utility operations, thanks in no small part to Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments, our research and development program, as well as a willingness to try things that customers want, especially on a smaller scale. However, there are some public power utilities behind the curve. Why? For one, the cost and availability of these technologies have been factors in adopting them. While there are many opportunities presented for defraying the costs of testing and deploying new technologies from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, today’s supply chain challenges again present a barrier to how public power can deploy them. Technology also introduces new problems and challenges as we adopt it, and these challenges might present higher relative barriers for smaller utilities. As explored in various articles in this issue, increased reliance on and push for various technologies has also grown a need for enhanced cybersecurity protocols and requires our workforce to gain new skills.
The American Public Power Association stands ready to help public power understand and, when ready, deploy technology. Between our events and trainings, cooperative agreements with the Department of Energy, and programs and services, we hope as conveners and curators of the expertise and information you need to make informed technology decisions that we can be the bridge to enable technological change at your utility.