Tilak Subrahmanian of Eversource Energy: Profile of an Energy Central Innovation Champion
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- Mar 23, 2020 8:15 pm GMT
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Over the past few months, Energy Central called upon its vast community of utility professional members to nominate peers and colleagues who are leading the way in innovation. Over 100 key leaders were nominated, and, through a committee of Energy Central Experts, we have chosen 5 as true leading Champions in Innovation (more details on this process can be found here).
Tilak Subrahmanian, a Vice President of Energy Efficiency at Eversource Energy, was one of the Champions selected. Tilak was nominated by his peers at Eversource for the leadership and vision, with an eye towards innovation, that he brought the utility’s vast energy efficiency portfolio during his more than a decade of service. Tilak helped usher in innovative processes in stakeholder engagement and customer service via countless programs.
As recognition of all the great work Tilak Subrahmanian has contributed to the power industry, please enjoy this profile of Tilak and his innovative work at Eversource in his own words. And please be sure to join Energy Central in congratulating him in the comments below (where you’re also invited to ask him questions or just leave him a comment with your thoughts).
Tilak on his background in the utility industry:
“I've been in the energy industry for about 10 years. I came from the publishing industry. My last job was for Thomson Reuters in their corporate strategy group. We lived through the whole print-to-digital transition worrying about whether Google was going to eat us alive. We came out very strong at the other end. What I learned was the best way to mitigate business risk as the industry was going through structural change and to really understand customers. So, in my decade at Eversource, we’ve prioritized developing a deep understanding of our customers, how they use products and services, how and when they use energy, their demand profile, and demographic and firmographic context.
Working for a utility or in the energy sector was never part of my career plans. I just fell into this. The past 10 years have been a blast. It’s such a privilege to be part of shaping the future, as this industry goes through structural change. Coming in, my biggest asset was that I had no bias and no background to say, "No, it's impossible."
On the importance of energy efficiency rankings as a measure of success (Eversource and its services areas have consistently been ranked highly by ACEEE’s efficiency rankings, for example):
“I would say they are important, and they are a nice bonus. It's always nice to be recognized. It gives some level of credibility. It allows us to open some doors. In some quarters people accept our calls, where they may have been more skeptical.
At the end of the day, though, we are in the business of helping our customers optimize their energy use. We try to do that very well, and we scale it in a way that nobody has. Everything else flows from that.”
Eversource Energy program highlights from Tilak’s perspective
“One of my observations on joining the company was that we had very deep expertise in energy, but we were a bit light on the “go-to-market” skills. We invested in correcting that.
For instance, if you just look at how energy use is spread across the customer base, everybody talks about the 80/20 rule. In our commercial and industrial sector, roughly 2% of our customers account for 80% of the energy use. And from our data, this has proven consistent across our service territory. Pick any utility, and I'm guessing you'll be somewhere in that range of 2-4%. So, if you don't get to that 2% of customers, it's going to be difficult to achieve efficiency goals. That led us, in 2009, to develop what we call our energy efficiency MOU to raise the conversation around energy saving to a higher level within the organizations we work with. Our first MOU was with MIT, and it was signed by the president of MIT and CFO. It was a $15 million dollar investment from MIT with a 15% reduction in their energy use, 5% a year over three years. We blew those numbers away. Ultimately, in the five years after we signed the partnership, MIT added roughly 1.3 million square feet of buildings on campus. Because of our efforts, their energy use was flat. That is what we do and do at scale across our customer base. That is what gets me out of bed. “
Advice for other utilities to push innovation the customer will embrace
“Engaging customers is job one. They are coming to us because they want to reduce their energy use or optimize their energy use. We try to meet them where they are in their decision-making process. The MIT example described how we approach really large customers, that 2%. The flip side of that, if you stay again with commercial and industrial, we found that 80% of our commercial and industrial customers account for only 6% of the usage. These are the nail salons, barber shops, etc. A huge volume of customers that use much less energy. You cannot reach them the same way you reach the MITs of the world. To reach them we did three things: (i) leveraged technology to group them and develop targeted messaging and offers; (ii) leveraged trusted community entities, such as the mayor’s or town manager’s offices for endorsement and to get the message out and (iii) worked with channel partners to reach the customers and provide services. We also had bilingual staff where warranted – which really helped to establish trust.
As an example, we have an initiative called Main Streets program. We started this about two years ago here in Massachusetts. We have employees who walk down a Main Street, to recruit small business customers. With this method, we can very easily do some quick things like swapping out some light bulbs or changing out aerators, basic no-brainers. That was the way to engage that particular community. Again, things that were very important there were, for example, to have some Spanish-speaking staff. The other thing we found is people actually trust utilities, and they needed to see our name. That's added a lot of credibility. That's just an example of how we went after a very particular subsegment of customers that we found we couldn't reach another way.”
Previewing the future of energy innovation
“Innovation must be part of the fabric of how we operate. I am not a big proponent of having a separate innovation team, siloed outside of other teams, that is solely responsible for going out and innovating. Instead what you must do is make these elements part of the fabric and culture of how the team and the company operates. There are several things that go into making this possible.
Here in Massachusetts and New England, fortunately, we have the landscape to be innovative. Our regulators and the state legislators, for example, have set aggressive goals for us, but they also gave us the mechanisms and incentives to drive forward. They hold us accountable, but they give us the space to go get it done, and that's important. When I do talk with some of my peers across the country, I often hear complaints that they have to get their regulator to sign off before they can do anything. No doubt we have to make the case, but I have always felt confident that if it made sense for our customers and made economic sense, we would get the support of our regulators.
I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the support I receive from the executive team at Eversource. Energy Efficiency sometimes gets overlooked: not so at Eversource. From the top of the house down, there is deep interest in and support for what we do. As a result, we have been able to attract talent from within the energy industry and from outside. We are lucky to be in an area with access to a deep and diverse talent pool.
Finally, at the risk of being repetitive, you need to have a deep (data-driven) understanding of customers and the problems you’re trying to solve. Once you have that, the rest falls in place. You can bring to bear the skills and tools to address the problem. Absent this approach, you run the risk of developing solutions looking for problems.
Innovation doesn’t always imply the fun stuff. It can be mundane. To give an example, we’re working to scale adoption of heat pumps here in New England. The problem with heat pumps, in extreme winters, you have to switch to some backup form of heat. Unfortunately, the heat pumps don’t talk to your smart thermostats. If you're a consumer, you have to be an energy nerd to remember to turn off your heat pumps and turn on your backup heating system as ambient temperature drops. That's not a scalable model, right? We are working with partners to address that – to allow smart thermostats to talk to heat pumps, so that the customer experience is seamless. There are a lot of mundane little things like that, that matter.
For sure, we have a group of people that is proactively looking at new technologies and the evolution of price-performance characteristics. We are doing a ton of work around battery storage and thermal storage. We are doing EV load management. There are a number of those more visible, high-profile things we do. Then, there's a whole lot of less fun, but equally impactful things we also do. Innovation is embracing all of that.
An important element of innovation is driving solutions to market at scale. Because of the credibility we have with customers and business partners, we are able to do that. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to show that economic sustainability and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. Everyone wants to do the right thing by the environment, but it has to make economic sense for them to do it. Far from being mutually exclusive, we’ve been able to show that they go together.
Energy Central thanks Tilak Subrahmanian for his valued contributions to the utility industry and for his leadership in the area of innovation. Please leave a note of thanks, ask a question, or just your two cents in the comments below. To see the other Energy Central Innovation Champions, see the rest of the Special Issue on Innovation in the Electric Power Industry.