A Conversation Between Outgoing and New AESP President John Hargrove and Jennifer SzaroPosted to AESP
image credit: AESP
- Apr 15, 2020 4:00 pm GMT
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As we all go through the effects of the coronavirus – working at home, social distancing, self-quarantine, you get the point – there are still things happening at AESP. One big thing that happened on Monday, April 6 is AESP has a new President and Chief Executive Officer to lead the organization. Jen Szaro, previously of SEPA, became our new boss. I am staying on for a while to help Jen and the staff with the transition and to make sure AESP stays active, healthy and relevant in these uniquely challenging times.
Most of you probably know me, or at least have read my words here before. But, most of you haven't met Jen so I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to her. She has a background perfect for the job, skillsets that are just what we need to continue to grow AESP and the right blend of experience and perspective. She's been through things that we need to do like increasing our diversity of content and membership to better serve our industry. But, better to let you hear more from her rather than me.
Enjoy. – John Hargrove
John Hargrove: Jen, welcome to the new job. I can honestly say it is one of the best jobs in the industry and you are going to love it.
Jennifer Szaro: Thanks, John! I'm most excited about joining AESP because of its focus on collaboration and moving the energy industry forward. We have an amazing opportunity to work collectively to evolve our energy ecosystem by pooling our resources and sharing knowledge. This focus among AESP members is what makes us so valuable to the industry. Together, utilities, consultants and our other industry members can share their distinct perspectives to provide a more holistic view of how our industry is evolving and how to overcome the challenges that lie in front of all of us related to that evolution.
John: Tell us briefly about your background.
Jen: Since the very beginning of my career, I've always been immersed in some aspect of clean energy. In the late '90s, I joined the Florida Solar Energy Center, an institute of the University of Central Florida, and focused my research on improving the performance and adoption of solar, energy storage and efficient building technologies. However, I felt like I could do more with my knowledge by applying it directly within the utility sector, so I joined the municipal utility, Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), back in 2006.
During my tenure at OUC, I also had the opportunity to serve as a board member for a variety of clean energy-related organizations including the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), formerly the Solar Electric Power Association. In early 2015, our board worked with Julia Hamm, the CEO of SEPA, to expand the scope of the organization to include technologies beyond solar. It was a big change for the organization and its members. I enjoyed working with the staff so much on these issues as a board member, that I ended up joining their leadership team in June of 2015. Working through that transition to a broader focus came with many bumps and bruises along the way, but eventually, we were able to reap the full benefits of our labor, which included new members, greater capabilities and increased revenues. I believe the biggest benefit, however, was our newfound ability to view industry evolution from a more holistic perspective. I see some of the same challenges – and similar benefits in store for us at AESP as we begin to evolve our focus to encompass new technologies such as electric vehicles, IOT devices and communication and controls that enable demand flexibility and grid transparency.
John: You mentioned that you worked for the Orlando Utilities Commission, what are some of the things you remember most about working in the utility field?
Jen: OUC is a larger municipal utility that owns generation as well as transmission and distribution. This role gave me great insight into the challenges of integrating renewables and customer-sited clean energy into traditional utility operations both from a business standpoint and a technical standpoint. Through the various initiatives I launched, I dealt with everything from customer billing and accounting system changes to the evolution of our distribution planning and operations processes. Much of my job became focused on change management, cross-functional team leadership and training our staff to manage new technologies and processes. It was really eye-opening for me to discover how each part of the utility is impacted by technology changes and how important access to continuing education is for all areas within the utility's operational framework, not just those that are immersed in developing and operating clean energy or sustainability programs.
John: Tell me more about your feelings on training and professional development and how you connect that to your future at AESP.
Jen: It's so critical for utilities and the energy services industry to invest in ongoing training and professional development for their team members. Today's grid is not yesterday's grid. Nor will it be tomorrow's. We are facing a period of rapid change. In order to be successful and maintain the role of trusted energy advisor, the utility industry needs to keep pace with the requirements of an ever-evolving grid. That means learning how to integrate new distributed energy technologies paired with more traditional energy efficiency investments. It means better understanding how different types of energy investments might interact with one another to alter a customer's load profile – especially when these aggregated load impacts are synchronized to maximize grid benefits. Consider how utilities in Hawaii are thinking about shifting electric vehicle charging to periods with excess solar supply to balance load. With the right tools and understanding, we can greatly enhance the value of these types of new customer investments. I hope to grow AESP's current DSM and Impact Evaluator Certificate Programs to better support these types of professional development needs. I also believe our members would benefit from growing our current certificate program into a more robust and comprehensive certification program in the longer term, which is something I hope to focus on.
John: What are the things that attracted you most to this job?
Jen: There were so many things – the organization's reputation among those in the industry, the level of engagement and excitement I observed from the board, how passionate AESP's members are about having a positive impact on the world – it's a big list! I'm also excited to dig into our eLearning offerings given all that has happened in the world within these last few months. I believe our investments in eLearning will continue to pay dividends for our members for many years to come.
John: Given your background and experience at SEPA, tell me your thoughts about member associations like ours.
Jen: I see associations like AESP and SEPA as conduits that connect our industry together and facilitate information sharing and collaboration. There is so much that must be done and if we work together, we can accomplish much more than if we stay in our silos. Associations like these allow us to maximize our efforts by encouraging peer to peer learning and reducing duplication of effort. If someone has developed an effective measurement and verification program, why not build on that rather than starting your own program from scratch? Organizations like these can really move the industry forward at a much faster pace. To that end, I'm looking forward to partnering with SEPA and other similar organizations to enhance industry collaboration. All of us together are so much stronger than each of us individually.
John: Other than the fact that you started in one of the most extraordinary times in any of our lives, what are your thoughts so far?
Jen: It certainly hasn't been your average onboarding process! I had really hoped to meet my new team in person, but unfortunately, the Coronavirus had other plans for us. On a positive note, our circumstances have afforded us the opportunity to become nimbler and more resourceful with our approach to collaboration and communication. I had initially planned to work with our team on enhancing our Cloud-based functionality over the next several months, but that need has come sooner than we all anticipated, and the team has risen to the occasion.
In lieu of real face time, we are using web-based conferencing tools to get to know each other. For example, we have shifted the focus to AESP's online courses. You can register for a "real time" course on Cost Effectiveness this April 28, and any of the on-demand courses in Energy Basics, Utility Fundamentals, Utility Business Models and Contract Management.
Online events are a great way to maintain social contact while reducing our risk of spreading the virus. For example, on Earth Day this April 22, we are hosting a virtual AESP "Break Room Meet-up". We're also using online collaboration tools like Microsoft teams to continue to seamlessly serve our members. I look forward to getting creative with how we push the envelope with new and enhanced web-based member benefits over the next few months!