Coming back from DistribuTECH 2019, and looking back at the last several DTECH events I’ve attended, I can really feel how the utilities industry has evolved over time and appreciate the tremendous change that has occurred in just a few short years. Not too long ago, DTECH was primarily focused on incremental improvement to grid technologies and optimization tools, but this year’s conference demonstrated that utilities are boldly embracing data-driven technologies, actively seeking opportunities to modernize the grid, and approaching their customers as partners.
2018 was all about industry disruption, and while this was still a term heard this year, disruption was no longer spoken of in terms of concern, uncertainty for the future or in “death-spiral” terms (in fact, I heard on several occasions that the “death spiral was dead”). The mood was far more positive and encouraging that we as an industry have hit a turning point—less about the shock of market disruption and more about being on a path toward a truly exciting future. It was perhaps said best in the opening keynote speech by our host utility’s COO - “If this business is going to be disrupted, why don’t we disrupt it ourselves, and be wildly successful doing so?”
This sense of a page being turned from an unknown future to one of new possibilities was evident both on the conference show floor, and in the many panel sessions I attended. On the floor, it seemed drones were everywhere, and not focused only on their safety and cost effectiveness but on the value of data capture coupled with analytics, artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance and incident response. The sessions were less focused on details about pilot programs and stage-zero technology evaluations, but on scaling of new technologies, the breaking down of silos within utilities to create end-to-end customer solutions and flexibility within the grid.
Another difference that 2019 brought was an increased focus on the customer. Previously, when the end consumer was mentioned in the context of the grid, it was centered around reliability, power quality and a smattering of how to manage the relatively small portion of a customer base asking for clean energy solutions or to connect distributed energy resources (DER). This year, I was surprised by the number of instances in which grid operators talked about the need for utilities to take proactive steps to identify current and future grid modernization needs in areas of potential for growth in DER.
Pointing to Amazon and other online retailers that are changing customers’ “anything, any time” expectation, utilities are coming to the realization that the grid needs to be truly flexible to meet these changing customer desires. Numerous times, utility representatives used the term “partner” when describing the changing relationship they want to have with their customers. Here too, a quote heard during a mega-session summed this up well, “Innovation begins when you start with the customer and work backwards.”
The utility industry faces the daunting, yet exciting, challenge to figure out how to do what Accenture calls the Wise Pivot—a strategy that enables companies to create new businesses without abandoning their core. Continuous improvement of the core “wires and pipes” business is critical, but to remain relevant in this evolving environment, utilities will have to be bold and creative in providing new products and services to become a true partner to their customers.