Sun Records, Sam Phillips and the Electric Utility Industry

Businessman Sam Phillips launched his small recording studio, Sun Records, in Memphis, Tennessee, in early 1952. Phillips was known for listening to almost any musician who came in off the street. He put no style limitations on his artists and kept an open mind. His studio, therefore, was home to many types of musicians and genres. More than a decade before The Beatles hit the scene, Sun Records was developing artists and releasing music influenced by several genres. This music crossed racial, generational and regional barriers. It was America’s original rock ‘n’ roll music.

In those early days of rock ‘n’ roll, most established recording studios and their much more educated and sophisticated executives downplayed Phillips and Sun Records’ new style of music. They believed this new sound was a passing fad that would never last. They were certain society would not accept rock ‘n’ roll and the notion that music could cross racial boundaries, not to mention the wild and “indecent” gyrations that accompanied it. Even Phillips sometimes questioned its durability. More than 60 years later, this music has endured, and it has profoundly affected the music industry and society.

By now, you might be wondering where I’m going with this lesson in rock ‘n’ roll history. I think distributed energy resources (DER) and other disruptive technologies could be the rock ‘n’ roll of the electric utility industry. Seldom are the days when I don’t receive a press release or announcement about a solar project, energy storage installation, microgrid or other nontraditional service or offering. The first Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) commissioned by President Obama and released by his administration in late April cites the tremendous increase in the use of renewable energy sources, especially solar, as a main reason the electricity industry is transforming. The QER states that solar energy has increased 20-fold in the U.S. since 2008.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) just announced that its microgrid powered the entire community of Borrego Springs during planned grid maintenance. None of the 2,800 customers in the area saw a major service disruption. SDG&E used on-site generation and energy storage systems, as well as NRG Energy’s nearby 26-MW Borrego Solar facility to supply electricity to its customers during maintenance. According to SDG&E, this was the first time a U.S. microgrid has used renewable energy to power an entire community.

Although many industry insiders remain convinced that large, central station power generation cannot be displaced and that customers will always be connected to the grid, the number of solar, energy storage and microgrid installations is growing. Companies are offering new technologies and services to utilities’ customers, transforming the energy industry into one that is yet to be defined.

Several articles in this issue address DER, behind-the-meter services and customers’ growing expectations. All of these challenge utilities, but they also drive new grid technologies, customer offerings and opportunities for utilities, as well as nonutilities, to succeed as the industry transforms.

Will the traditional utility establishment sit by and watch the Sam Phillipses of the energy industry transform it? Or will they do what RCA Victor, Capitol Records, Columbia, Mercury and other well-established record labels eventually did in the 1950s: jump on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon and take the ride that transformed their industry?

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

Editor’s Note: It is with a heavy heart that I share some sad news about Jon Arnold, managing director of Microsoft’s Power & Utilities division, a founding member of the Electric Light & Power Executive Conference advisory board and a supporter of DistribuTECH. Jon passed away unexpectedly May 14.

One of Jon’s Microsoft colleagues emailed me with the sad news. The email said, “Jon was someone who was grounded in life as a dedicated, caring father and a family man at home and as a friend and mentor for all of his work colleagues. He was genuine, caring, energetic, ethical and hard-working, as well as a thought leader in the industry.” I couldn’t agree more.

Like so many in the industry, my PennWell colleagues and I will miss Jon.


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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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