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Power Points | Sparking a New Conversation

by Elisabeth Monaghan

If you’ve just done a double take, you’ve probably realized I am not Terry Wildman. My name is Elisabeth Monaghan, and I am the new editor in chief for EE T&D. During the transition, I did not get to spend a lot of time working with Terry, but he made sure to pass on how much he enjoyed working with the Electric Energy Online community and assured me I would find everyone warm and welcoming. He was right.

For the past 30 years, I have worked in some capacity as a writer, editor, publicist, and integrated marketing professional. In this time, I’ve also had a long and complex relationship with electricity. I knew it was dangerous, but I wanted to know more. When I was about five, curiosity got the best of me. I stuck a metal hairclip into the electrical outlet in my parents’ bathroom. (I know. It was a ridiculously stupid move.) Fortunately, I did not hurt myself, but it certainly sparked (pun intended) my respect for what was going on to make that bolt run up my arm and through my body.

The five-year-old in me still is curious about electrical energy, as well as technology and innovation. I marvel at all of the ways in which we harness a wide variety of energy forms in order to keep up with – and exceed – the demands of every day modern life. Electrical energy is a critical component in maintaining our health, wellbeing and understanding of the world around us. It is a connector – literally – that threads together people from across the globe, enabling us to live under one roof. This fascinates me. It makes me appreciate the magnitude and vastness of our human potential.

The power sector is constantly changing. Today’s innovative technology is tomorrow’s outmoded approach. To remain relevant and competitive we have to keep up. As editor in chief, I intend to spotlight thought leaders in the power industry, whose insights will inspire all of us to reach a bit further while remaining excited about the work we do.

For my inaugural issue, I sought the expertise of two industry veterans. What follows are some of the observations they shared with me. One of the most pressing issues is the uncertainty of how things will shake out under the Trump administration. Although Trump has been in office for nearly five months, it is still uncertain what effect his policies will have on the energy sector. If his budget slashes clean energy, how will that affect innovation both in the U.S. and internationally? Will U.S.-based companies be able to keep up with the rest of the world’s advances in renewable energy? A number of communities and power plants are thrilled with Trump’s promise to bring back coal production and the new jobs bringing it back could generate. There are enough articles about how a resurgence of coal could or couldn’t work, but what about those plants that have shifted from coal production to producing natural gas or renewable energy?

Wayne Bishop, marketing director for Omicron Electronics, does not believe these converted plants will change course. “We have seen a huge number of coal plants close. Some of this might change with Trump, but many utilities have already announced they’re shutting down their coal plants. For example, Florida has announced they’re going to be closing 27- 30 of their coal-fired plants by 2020 to comply with the Clean Power Act. I think what’s going to happen is the states are going to say, ‘We’re already on track to do this. Let’s just forge ahead and keep going.’ People realize now it is better for the environment that we have these clean energy initiatives in place and I think they’re going to push forward.”

As hackers get smarter and more resourceful, businesses are at greater risk of security breeches, so cyber security has become a top priority. Mike Guilfoyle, who is the director of research for ARC Advisory Group, says utilities are a little behind the curve in terms of tackling the issue, but by looking at how other industries are handling it, they’re coming up with their own solutions. “Utilities have started to see a greater concern for cyber security down at the distribution level, where they previously hadn’t been as concerned about it, but now, as you look at connected devices and transactive energy, security becomes much more important.”

Another issue that has begun to hit industries across the board is the aging workforce. With more Baby Boomers approaching retirement age, there is a gap of experienced workers to replace them. Guilfoyle sees digitization as one approach for capturing the aging workers’ knowledge. “You’re starting to see all these manual processes be heavily automated. That’s not going to stop until most everything manual is eliminated. What that gives you the ability to do this is to gather all the data related to that decision making process—and you can use things like analytics, and you can use things like machine learning—to take that data and create an insight out of it. This then becomes enterprise knowledge versus individual knowledge. So the fact you can put an algorithm out on a machine, run data through it and have that machine learn that data over time, takes tribal knowledge and makes it enterprise knowledge.”

While some of these issues require prompt resolution, there are other changes occurring in the industry that are more interesting than they are concerning.

For example, Wayne Bishop points out how customer behavior has changed. According to Bishop, utilities have discovered their customer base has become more knowledgeable and more assertive. About 20 years ago, utility customers were simply ratepayers, who dropped their bill in the mail or paid it in person. Today, customers want to know details on any matters concerning their personal power supply, and they expect to receive the information right away. If their power is down, they want to know what caused the outage. What other areas are affected by the outage? How long will it be until the power is back?

On the solution provider side of the industry, Mike Guilfoyle sees a trend in the way major companies like Microsoft, Honeywell, GE, SAP, and Schneider, are building their own industrial platforms with IoT services. “They very much intend to push those horizontal platforms down into their industry verticals, so I think you’ll see more emphasis on the development of after market services by these solution providers, where you can see if you can sell uptime as a service. That’s going to take a while for the utilities to come to grips with and understand, but it’s happening across multiple industries.”

This represents a small portion of my conversations with Bishop and Guilfoyle. In addition to speaking with them, I also had a brief exchange with Dave Bryant, director technology for CTC Global. When I asked for his thoughts about the industry, Bryant stated, “We are obviously living in a very interesting and uncertain time. Lots of heavy challenges, however, are offering lots of opportunity for creative problem solving.”

Bryant also pointed out why this industry and those who work in it will power through any existing or unforeseen challenges “There are a lot of bright people working on solutions for every perceivable problem.”

To me, this succinctly defines the tenacity and resourcefulness that will fuel the power industry and carry it through the next cycle of challenges and breakthroughs--and spark endless possibilities.

Elisabeth

If you have interesting technology, solutions, or story suggestions, please email them to me at Elisabeth@ElectricEnergyOnline.com. I look forward to working with you.





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