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Molding your perfect customer-centric grid? Impossible without DER planning.

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Kathleen Wolf Davis's picture
Blogger Oracle Utilities

Kathleen Wolf Davis blogs regularly for Oracle Utilities with her left hand and manages their social media with her right. She also writes ebooks, white papers and other bits and pieces of...

  • Member since 2017
  • 7 items added with 19,868 views
  • Aug 13, 2019

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2019-09 - Distributed Energy Resources, click here for more

It’s not new territory, we know—this concept that the customer is no longer just a ratepayer for utilities, that she is now the central figure in everything you do from the frontline CSR gig to the back-office SaaS support guru, to the lineman with the hotstick doing field work. Making a happier, smarter, savvier energy prosumer dedicated to saving energy who understands the power of power (and the world of water, too) has become the guiding principle of the utilities industry.

There are great books about it. There are data-filled white papers about it. There are videos about it (and we’ve made some of those). There are blogs about it, too (and we’ve made a lot of those).

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So, telling you the customer is the heart to your flowers, the key to your lock, the life to your blood—well, that’s pretty old news, really.

You’ve been there. And you’re doing that.

Moving beyond the “new relationship” point with your customer love

No idea is static. No project is over. No evolution ends (unless that line just dies off, anyway).

So, now that you’ve got the updated and upgraded CIS, now that you have IoT in everything, now that your OMS can find an outage or more, group problem areas and dispatch solutions and trucks and manpower to fix those problem areas in record time, what’s the next step?

Where do you go after you’ve optimized and energized and interconnected and interplayed and inter-plugged all that you already got?

You see what your customer’s got and figure out how to optimize it, energize it, interconnect, interplay and inter-plug that, too.

And the big “what they’ve got” customer category with a growth footprint in the utility biz today is: distributed energy (DER).

What lies beyond (or here’s the new news)

The problem with how we see our customer-centric grid today is that it doesn’t have all the pieces showing just yet. We’ve shifted the customer position from outlier to center “sun” position … but we haven’t much changed the rest of the tech universe inherent in our utility world.

We want every utility worker to think about how what they do impacts the customer and think about how the customer wants to discuss or give feedback about those impacts. But we haven’t yet thought beyond the light switch ourselves when it comes to how the customer will impact all of us—and impact how that utility tech system works together: every single piece.

One big piece: the rise of generation that’s not burnt or big-build, not on-demand or constant. There will be a huge influx of distributed energy resources scattered along those customer lines catering to varying customer power desires (cleaner, back-up, EV extra) that will need to be both monitored and managed (when it comes to pulling that into the larger grid equation).

If you think we’re wrong about that, mull these points:

  • Residential solar system prices have been cut by half in the last decade from about $40K to under $20K. It’s logical to assume that will happen again in the same time period (if not faster, actually, if you figure in momentum and economic theory). When solar systems are under $10K or under $5K, how many of your customers will want one? Is your grid prepped for that surge?
  • While we have seen a small slump in residential solar the last couple of years (though that does look to be on the rebound again), what hasn’t seen a single slump in almost a decade now? EV sales. We’re quickly approaching a million just in the U.S. alone. The EEI chart on it looks like one of those “perfect” fake charts you buy from a stock art source. (Look.) And every one of those cars needs a place to park and a place to plug (preferably in the same place). Is your grid prepped not just to power those, but to get the power back, too?

So, if you’re planning for a customer-centric grid in branding and efficiency only, it’s time to think broader with your strategy. It’s time to shift our focus from the customer in the center to the pieces that revolve around her and how they’re going to change, too. 

If you’ve yet to factor in the coming “explosive growth” of DER, your view of the utility universe has the correct sun but an incomplete picture of the rest of our ever-expanding universe.

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Thank Kathleen Wolf for the Post!
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Matthew Knott's picture
Matthew Knott on Aug 13, 2019

Great post, Kathleen! It's clear that we've reached an inflection point when it comes to DERs and their impact on the utility landscape. Solar PV (both MW and KW installations) and electric vehicles are definitely getting the lion's share of visibility, but also be on the lookout for energy storage as well as demand response. With this added complexity brings the potential of new opportunities to reliably and cost-effectively optimize the grid. In many cases, evolution has only just begun. 

You mentioned that "no evolution dies". I agree and the final point I want to highlight is that most utilities are not up to date with the latest and greatest "traditional" systems. The key challenge is setting the proper foundation to establish the necessary flexibility to adjust and scale where and when needed...with DERs and beyond.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 13, 2019

Agreed with Matthew-- really enjoyed this piece, Kathleen. In particular I'm stealing this: 

So, if you’re planning for a customer-centric grid in branding and efficiency only, it’s time to think broader with your strategy. It’s time to shift our focus from the customer in the center to the pieces that revolve around her and how they’re going to change, too. 

This might be the moment of greatest amount of change in a traditionally slow-moving industry, but customers are quickly becoming positioned to embrace customers as partners instead of just where they leave the end product. The utilities that embrace that the most will be the most well prepared for the grid of tomorrow. 

Kathleen-- do you have in mind an example or two of utilities or regions where this type of change is being most willingly and comprehensively embraced? I always like to look for the good examples


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