Community Engagement

Why it is important for public power to innovate

I’ve heard it time and again — some utilities don’t perceive themselves to be innovative, or they don’t think they have the time or budget to do “innovative” work.

True, utilities are not often grouped with technology companies that are considered “cutting edge,” even as our work underpins theirs. But our industry doesn’t just provide the resources needed for other companies to develop technology — we also must use technology to perform our jobs.

Innovation is not just throwing new technology at a problem. It’s about being able to adapt and think differently.

Perhaps your utility’s mission statement is something such as, “to provide our community with reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electricity.” Achieving any of these goals requires trying out new ideas to truly show our communities a dedication to continuous improvement. Therefore, it is an essential part of our work to continuously explore how new technologies, ideas, and processes might help us be more efficient, safe, and reliable. In other words, we must be innovative.

From what I’ve seen in my nearly 20 years of managing the Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments program — aka DEED — public power utilities are innovative.

The innovation we do is different. Our innovation might not be “shiny” or “splashy,” because we don’t often have the promotional budget to talk about our research and development efforts. But even without fanfare, our innovation is moving us forward.

We look at problems holistically and focus on finding the most efficient, effective and smart ways to work to benefit our communities. Alongside the hundreds of projects that have allowed public power to explore implementing certain technologies — such as community solar, energy storage, and electric vehicle infrastructure — past DEED projects have focused on topics including economic development, community engagement, and STEM education. These latter projects might not typically be associated with R&D, but they demonstrate the suite of creative solutions that reinforce the local choice central to public power, promote workforce development, and ultimately boost the utility’s, and therefore the city’s, bottom line.

We can partner with other government entities and with community organizations and foundations to leverage our expertise for projects outside our traditional wheelhouse. For example, a project by Stoughton Utilities in Wisconsin a few years ago worked with teachers on how lighting temperature affected students’ ability to learn. Another project, by the Tennessee Valley Authority, looked at the feasibility of a decentralized wastewater treatment process.

Public power provides a fundamental commodity in our communities. That is a big responsibility. Public power utilities got a meaningful reminder of the importance of electricity by participating in the Light Up Navajo initiative in 2019. DEED provided funding to conduct a feasibility study of the concept, which touches two core values that make public power R&D unique: our collaborative spirit and our dedication to quality of life. The initiative led to more than 230 homes getting electricity for the first time, and it was recognized with the American Society of Association Executives’ 2020 Power of A Summit Award.  

Innovation has long been important for utilities, and with the rapid transformation taking place in the power industry, it is now even more important for public power to ensure it is taking part in R&D.

The collaboration across DEED is also important in keeping the public power community strong. By pooling research, public power utilities effectively share their R&D budgets and enable each other to advance together — understanding where we might find new efficiencies, how to implement new service offerings, and how to better serve our communities.

DEED’s inception in 1980 — 40 years ago — formalized a platform for public power to support and share innovations, and the program is now more than 950 strong. That’s 950 utilities, joint action agencies, and state associations that know that to best serve their communities, they must keep learning and advancing. They must innovate.