Over the past several decades I’ve worked with some of the largest and most progressive utilities and public safety organizations in North America. The similarities between public safety organizations that provide emergency response in different regions of our country and the utilities that faithfully serve those regions is very insightful. It’s easy to assume that selling electricity is a commodity because electricity is the same everywhere, right? But just as emergency response services require a coordinated effort of a broad range of skills, the same is true for the electric utility industry.
It has been my experience that the effort required to meet the evolving requirements of taxpayer and rate payers continues to drive new, innovative solutions that quickly stress many existing systems. One may think we could easily describe the difference between these systems as metro and rural, overhead and underground.
But that answer is not fair when comparing regions that have to prepare for both natural and man-made disasters while transforming their organizations to adapt to our changing world. It would be nice if an individual named “More” would have responded to a help wanted ad. It would also be nice if the person responsible for keeping up with the utility crystal ball would stop hiding it.
Most consumers, along with some new alternative-generation service providers, don’t realize the complex engineering required to insure the delivery of electricity while maintaining quality and reliability required for the steady flow of on-demand, all-time power to our homes and businesses. It is refreshing to hear from some leading developers of renewable energy industry that they are seeking to support the development of standards to improve cost-effective delivery of safe and reliable electricity.
The rapid expansion of expectations from consumers, regulators and corporations is requiring the convergence of multiple conversations, all seeking a solution in this new and evolving world of power consumption and delivery. While costs continue to come down on renewable energy, our base-load demand consumption requirements require the integration of multiple energy sources. This is all happening as our grid transforms from a one-way limited access energy highway to a two-way Interstate highway with a large number of on- and off-ramps.
Local governments and public safety organizations are facing a similar challenges. For example, local telephone service lines used to be everywhere. Now, try and find a landline in many U.S. homes. But one of the nice benefits during times of power outage is that local phone lines are powered by the telco central offices. This means that even when the lights are out, you have a high degree of confidence you could still use your phone and make a 911 call if needed.
With that decline of the traditional line service showing the way, you really don’t need a crystal ball to see that distributed energy generation and storage are going to be a significant part of our power system in the not too distant future.
While we may have very diverse opinions on what the future holds, what will and will not work, and how cost-effective any technology will ultimately be, one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the services provided to insure our quality of life will require local first responder and utility communities to work hand-in-hand.
In the 1980s and 1990s, wireless and fiber optic networks laid the foundation for how we communicate today. Tomorrow, technology will become more integrated into devices, facilities and our critical infrastructure assets like never before. Consider how effective these technology solutions will be if they don’t have power. Electricity will be needed to energize creative solutions for where we live, work and play.
Regulators, investors and individuals have speculated what the future holds for the power grid. Some have even suggested that wind and solar won’t survive, while others have suggested the power grid will become a thing of the past. I don’t think one needs a crystal ball to see the unlikely possibility of either of these extremes becoming a reality.
So now what?
If we did have a utility crystal ball, I believe it would show us a developing recipe for the next generation of standards that requires one key ingredient. That ingredient is the place where smart organizations will invest. I’m talking about great leaders. Good leaders won’t be good enough. Great leaders will be team builders and stakeholder developers, passionate about adapting to change to harness the potential the future holds for us all.
Once the relationships are in place, the ability to team up to build solutions will allow us to explore common benefits. The ripple effect of teaming up to leverage technology, broadband and electricity will be the next foundation we lay for our future. Organizations that do this better than the next will be just like Lewis and Clark, cutting a trail for others to follow.
With so many different changes taking place, I believe the time has never been better to connect organizations so those that support the critical infrastructure industry can learn from each other. So do we really need a crystal ball or, as leaders, do we get on the management train and enjoy a front row seat as we embrace change that will improve things for everyone?