The Challenges and Strategies for Bringing New Utility Technology to Market: Exclusive Interview with James Linder of the Tennessee Valley Authority - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Energy Efficiency Group
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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Aug 23, 2019

As the energy industry continues innovating at a breakneck pace, utilities are eager to integrate the exciting new technologies into their offerings for customers as well as for internal benefits. Roll out of new technology, though, is not always as simple as plug and play, and the forward-looking utilities across the industry must be careful to develop thoughtful strategies in the how and when they bring those technologies to their market. While the opportunities are great, the challenges must be recognized as just as present.

That’s where James Linder comes in for Tennessee Valley Authority, as he holds the title of ‘Innovation Scout’ for the power utility. James is mindful of the right and the wrong strategies when it comes to bringing these shiny new toys for the utility sector, and luckily for the rest of us he’s going to be sharing some of those secrets at the upcoming AESP Summer Conference in Toronto. Before James shares his thoughts on the ‘Bringing New Technologies to Market: Challenges and Strategies’ panel, I was able to chat with him to bring some of that wisdom out for the Energy Central community.

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Matt Chester: You’re going to be speaking on the panel about the challenges in bringing new utility programs to market. Can you start by giving a background on your experience with the utility industry and specifically in the types of programs you’ve had a hand in bringing to market? What is it that attracts you to this type of work?

James Linder: I joined TVA in 2000, where I started in the Fixed Assets group analyzing transmission, hydro, fossil, and nuclear assets for capital projects and depreciation studies. Then I worked in the transmission group developing detailed project construction schedules, and following that I worked as a fuel analyst, where I calculated coal and reagent requirements for fossil plants. I then came into the efficiency world where I managed the Evaluation, Measurement and Verification team, and set up TVA’s technical resource manual and evaluation process.

I was then asked to take a new role by analyzing our entire generation fleet to become more energy efficient. It takes a lot of energy to produce energy; TVA consumed at that time close to 3,000 megawatts (MW) to produce 36,000 MW of power for the grid. After getting that program up, I was then asked to do resource planning where I forecasted energy efficiency, demand response, and renewable portfolio as a resource.

I recently took on a position in our Energy Resource and Technology Innovation group where I’m tasked to be the Innovation Scout. Innovation scouting is looking three to five years out in the horizon at new technology that can be scalable for TVA generation, whether its renewables, energy storage, or looking at new technologies that we can translate into programs for our customers. We try to partner with other forward-looking utilities, startups, capital ventures, government agencies, and research labs. 

Our team is currently working on a roadmap for electric vehicles, indoor food production facilities,  process compensated resonance testing (i.e., gas turbine blade reliability improvement), transformer online monitor evaluation, pollinator response on right of way management practices, predicting CCR impoundment impacts on groundwater, energy management circuit breaker, and advanced flow battery chemistry.

What attracts me most to this field is being on the forefront of new technology that allows us to bring energy to the Valley by ensuring its reliable, cost effective, and help ensure economic development to all of our customers.


MC: As an Innovation Scout, when you’re scoping out new innovations, whether those be technologies or program strategies, what types of factors are you looking for that demonstrate the potential for success? On the other hand, what are some common red flags of initiatives that might not be as successful?

JL: When scouting for new technologies there are several components that goes into the evaluation. First, is it scalable for TVA? Can this technology bring generation, delivery, or an efficient way of using electricity to the Valley in an economical way?

Next, is this technology readily deployable or is this 3 to 10 years out or blue sky technology, meaning advanced thinking that it isn’t readily available for over 10 years.

We’ll also ask what are the opportunities or credible threats that the technology poses to our electric grid, and what will it take to bring this technology to pilot and do we have a business partner that can aid in the technology transfer to make this reality?


MC: Implementing innovation into utility programs is often an extensive process, taking lots of time for R&D, decision-making, piloting, dealing with bureaucratic process and regulations, etc. Given the lag time that’s inherent in some of these technology implementations, how can utilities be sure to stay ahead of the curve rather than falling behind?

JL: Utilities cannot do this alone. It’s important that we maintain a partnership with electric utilities, research partners (such as EPRI), universities, national labs, startups, venture capitalists, and other innovators. Utilities also have to make time to look outside their industry to see what is innovative. I recently had a meeting with Chevron and ABB about how they innovate and what they do to stay current, thinking outside the box and collaborating with industries across all spectrums. You have to collaborate with others and having a good partnership where shared ideas and research help all utilities to stay ahead of the curve. Falling behind has the consequence of being another Blackberry or Blockbuster real quick.

MC: The challenges of utility programs today are surely different than from years past, as new technologies and innovations have brought fresh issues to the forefront, such as what to do with data, cybersecurity, etc. Can you comment on how the approaches to those new challenges are similar or different than the approaches to the historical challenges?

JL: Data management is very important to TVA. We have to make sure we’re using the data in the most relevant way to ensure rates, planning, and program design meets the needs of the Valley. Historically, utilities were more reactive than proactive. I think this mindset has changed dramatically over the last several years for utilities. We want to deliver electricity in the most economical way for our customers.


MC: Can you talk about one or two particular technologies or areas of innovation that are particularly encouraging in the coming years? What’s really getting you and leaders you speak with excited?

JL: I think storage solutions are encouraging. Battery chemistry still has a way to go for it to be cost effective for utilities and for customers, but the applications and uses are very encouraging. Another technology, power electronics and devices such as PV inverters or dischargers, are enabling solar grid integration and grid modernization.


MC: The AESP Summer Conference is a great chance for you to get together with peers and colleagues and share ideas and learn from others. Are there any particular topics you’re eager to focus on for your self-learning at the conference?

JL: I’m eager to learn how, what, when others are doing in the space of electrification, solar generation (implementation and cost), and innovative programs that help customers.

If you're interested in learning more about the best way for utilities to roll out new technologies, be sure to check out James's presentation this topic at AESP’s Summer Conference (in Toronto from August 27 to 29). You can learn more about the agenda and register for the conference here.


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