Steven Brown, Senior Associate Editor
This past February in Las Vegas, the DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition did what it has done for more than a dozen years: provided a forum for the power industry to assess current utility technology with an eye toward the future. Wall-to-wall technology in the exhibit hall coupled with talk of successful implementations in the conference rooms could give one the impression that the power industry is sitting atop a wave of innovation.
But is that really the case? Are utilities as innovative as a conference like DistribuTECH might lead one to believe?
While utilities have embraced certain technologies like substation automation (with 70 percent of respondents to a recent Newton-Evans Research study indicating they have a substation automation and integration program under way), the penetration of AMR on U.S. utility meters was less than 15 percent at last count. Likewise, technologies like FACTS and HVDC that could bolster an overburdened transmission system have been around for years, but remain too expensive and unproven to deploy to a significant degree.
The R&D investment necessary to improve AMR, propagate FACTS and HVDC, and produce future innovations is severely lacking. Kurt Yeager, president and CEO of EPRI, pointed out during the DistribuTECH keynote session that U.S. electricity industry R&D has declined to less than 0.3 percent of annual sales—approximately $600 million per year. Yeager told attendees that investment in electricity R&D, if it were proportionate to its direct economic value, should be closer to $5 billion per year. We’re a long way from that level of R&D investment, and a daily read of the Wall Street Journal doesn’t suggest we’re getting there any time soon.
Wanda Reder, another keynote speaker and vice president of engineering and planning at ComEd Energy Delivery, said the pressure on utilities to do more with less will continue. Toward the end of her speech, Reder quoted a line from a book titled “Leading the Revolution” by Gary Hamel: “Any company that hopes to survive the next ten years, let alone the next hundred, will have to be a paragon of penny-pinching efficiency on one side and unbridled creativity on the other. The accountants and the engineers are going to have to learn to love the poets and the dreamers.”
The sub-title of the book Reder quoted from is “How to Thrive in Turbulent Times by Making Innovation a Way of Life.”
That’s the trick. It’s easy to be optimistic, even excited, about the prospects of technology when you’re surrounded by it at a show like DistribuTECH. It’s much more difficult to maintain the optimism when you return to the home office. It’s difficult to make innovation a way of life—particularly in an industry where innovation, at the present at least, is undervalued.
The poets and dreamers working on the next power industry innovation are just as important to the stability of our electric infrastructure as the accountants who will approve purchase of that innovation and the engineers who will implement it. For three days in early February, the accountants, engineers, poets and dreamers all got along at DistribuTECH. Here’s hoping the spirit of camaraderie can continue throughout the year.