Customer Service, DISTRIBUTECH, T&D

Customers are the heart of the utility industry, say DistribuTECH keynote speakers

NEW ORLEANS-With customers getting more savvy, and having higher expectations surrounding technology in general, utilities must become partners with their customers, not simply suppliers of electricity.

This was an overarching message heard during the keynote session on Tuesday at the DistribuTECH conference and exhibition.

Paul Hinnenkamp, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Entergy, said that with evolving customer expectations, there is a need to shift to providing the products and services customers want and the outcomes they desire.

In fact, this evolution continues to be refined and re-imagined, and utilities’ long-term success is dependent on the ability to provide products and services that change the lives of customers. “If this business is going to be disrupted, why don’t we disrupt it ourselves?” Hinnenkamp asked.

Philip Mezey, president and CEO of Itron, said that utility reliability and resilience, together, are the future of the electric industry. With fuel sources becoming more diverse and challenges to providing clean, reliable and affordable electricity growing (the polar vortex and forest fires being just two recent examples), utilities must focus on how they can use data in “new and interesting ways” to gain the insight needed to most effectively target problem areas and resolve difficulties.

Echoing the message of new challenges, Terence Donnelly, president and chief operating officer of Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), discussed what it used to take to succeed as a utility vs what it really means to be a utility today. In fact, in this “new era of power,” Donnelly said, “We’re not in the utility business any more.”

Smart cities were a major focus for all three of these industry representatives. It starts with smart thermostats and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which provides extensive access to customer data that can be analyzed to build a more reliable and effective grid. Mezey pointed out that this advanced infrastructure is able to significantly cut down on the number of outage minutes. And Hinnenkamp said customer data may become the industry’s most valuable asset.

Then they extended this to the broader concept of smart cities, where gathering information from a wide variety of devices will allow the building of more efficient utilities and more livable, environmentally sustainable cities, Mezey said.

Donnelly discussed ComEd’s Bronzeville microgrid project, which is the first microgrid to serve a community in the middle of a major metropolitan city (Chicago). He called this microgrid “a backbone of a broader effort to create the community of the future” and said it is a living laboratory for smart cities technologies that respond to community needs.

Other challenges the keynote speakers discussed include decarbonization and diversifying the fuel mix, aging assets and the cost of replacement, electrification of transportation, attracting new talent and the growing threat of cybersecurity.