The Future of Energy at Washington’s Energy Future Conference



December 7, 2017

North Highland recently had the opportunity to sponsor and participate in the Northwest Environmental Business Council’s Washington’s Energy Future Conference. Participants gathered to discuss the progress made and challenges faced in building Washington’s renewable energy economy. Here are some of our key takeaways:

The utility industry is in a period of deep transformation and customer needs are changing.

Keynote speaker, David Danner, Chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC) challenged conference attendees to consider the unprecedented amount of change facing the industry. Government policies such as The Energy Independence Act require a distinct shift in the traditional utility business model by requiring electric utilities with 25,000 or more retail customers to use renewable energy. Technology advancements and the continued decline of clean energy costs are creating new opportunities. Customer expectations are also shifting. While the voice of the customer used to focus primarily on rate increases, now more customers are saying they want, and expect, options for clean power, even if it’s at a premium. Lastly, the effects we’ve seen recently due to climate change—warmer winters, ocean acidification resulting in a decrease of the Alaskan cod and crab population, and increased forest fires—puts an even greater emphasis on the need for clean energy. As the industry transforms it must embrace these changes and work together to innovate for our future.

Innovation and partnerships are key.

Success stories are coming out of partnerships between utilities and customers looking to reduce their carbon footprint and utilize clean energy. In July, the WUTC approved an agreement between Microsoft and Puget Sound Energy (PSE), allowing Microsoft to purchase clean energy directly from power producers. In recognizing Microsoft’s unique needs, PSE partnered with their customer to create an innovative solution that benefits not only Microsoft, but the community and the state of Washington as well.

Other PSE customers, like REI and King County, are also enjoying the benefits of innovative programs like the Green Direct  program, enabling them to power their operations with clean energy and commit to their sustainability efforts. PSE sets a leading example for utilities across the country in partnership and innovative solutions that meet customer needs.

Drive awareness and shift customer behavior to transform the energy industry, and use data in the right way to get there.

Organizations constantly struggle with data and information overload, and in that struggle they often miss the point. Meters on everything create massive amounts of data to understand. Instead of creating confusion, this data should be helping us drive efficiency. As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “T4IR”, where technology blends into our society, creating knowledge and insight out of this mountain of data plays a critical role.

Energy consumption within households is a key example. There is a need to integrate energy information into our daily lives to influence our behaviors—and the answer isn’t in creating another app. While customer’s can usually see their energy usage by logging into a portal, the potential benefits of actually accessing that data and then reacting accordingly are not always realized.  Leveraging a more real-time human-machine interaction can help the industry drive results in this space.

The industry workforce is changing.

One-third of the utility workforce will reach retirement in the next ten years, and a new generation of workers needs to be trained.  Artificial intelligence can play an important role in obtaining human knowledge from a very experienced set of workers, and transitioning that knowledge to newer employees. Instead of the “doomsday” scenario where AI replaces humans, consider the opportunity for AI to serve as a trusted colleague.  Just as a new employee needs to be trained, AI solutions or “bots” need to be trained, too.  Once bots are fed the appropriate data and taught how to interpret it, they have the capability to quickly provide employees with information, learn more, and even support in decision making processes.

While machines are great at processing massive data sets and identifying efficiency and optimization opportunities, humans are best at relationship building, understanding dynamic conditions, and complex problem solving. The key is to leverage the human-machine partnership to allow both to focus on and optimize their respective capabilities.

Security threats are growing with the advance of technology.

As we rely more on technology, cybersecurity threats impact us and the energy grid in a very real way. There are an increasing number of cyber attacks directed at utilities, and they are vulnerable to phishing and social engineering attempts. To ensure energy resources and availability are protected, it’s important to educate employees, build awareness of cyber threats, and drive cyber secure behaviors.

Bottom line.

At times the future of energy can feel uneasy if focusing on the negatives, like climate change and cybersecurity threats. But in recognizing the opportunity and power in choosing to partner and innovate—organization to organization, corporation to government, human to machine, and most importantly human to human— we remove this uneasiness, and take control of the energy future we must create.