Energy Central Power Perspectives: Getting to Know Your Expert Interview Series: Pat Hohl, Expert in the Digital Utility CommunityPosted to Energy Central in the Digital Utility Group
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- Oct 10, 2019 1:45 pm GMTSep 23, 2019 4:08 pm GMT
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As we continue in our ‘Getting to Know Your Expert’ Interview series, you’ll find that the Energy Central experts come from a wide range of backgrounds, their areas of expertise cover the gamut of important and forward-looking areas in the utility industry, and they all bring immense value to the table. That trend continues with a gusto as we move next to the interview I got to do with Pat Hohl, subject matter expert on GIS solutions for electric utilities and respected expert to Energy Central’s Digital Utility Community.
Pat brings with him a fascinating career that provides him with the background knowledge and first-hand experience to truly see the utility industry as it has evolved and anticipate where it will likely move as the digital revolution of the energy industry continues. As a member of Energy Central’s network of experts, Pat is accessible to the Energy Central Community (i.e., You!) to provide insights into trends, developments, and more.
To get to know Pat better, read through the thoughtful answers he gave to my prying questions, and then if you see him around the Energy Central community don’t hesitate to ask him a question, leave him a comment, or just say hello!
Matt Chester: First off, thanks both for the time you’re taking to answer these questions but also for the continued time you dedicate to Energy Central and to the Digital Utility community as an expert. When you look at the idea of the digital utility of today and tomorrow, what makes you personally excited to be a part of this industry and why is it such an important area of focus for the modern utility?
Pat Hohl: It's well known that utilities face large challenges ahead. When I look around, I see there are plenty of good things happening in our world, and in the utility space, to help address those challenges. In terms of the digital utility, our capabilities to store, analyze, and share information are increasing so rapidly, it’s staggering. Digital utilities are using information to tremendous advantage. I’m particularly excited about machine learning. Nearly every utility workflow has applications for machine learning – if you have data, machine learning can make educated predictions and fine-tune decision making.
MC: Obviously, the definition of a digital utility has changed and evolved with technology as the years move on. How does this industry look different than it did a few years back, and is it possible for you to anticipate what the digital utility of 2029 might look like? Is technology moving fast enough to make looking forward 10 years difficult to do, or do you think the utility industry has the future (at least in that short term) sketched out?
PH: I like to ask: how clearly did we see 2019 back in 2009? The first smart phones were just being adopted, so how well did we anticipate the way we use a phone today? Did we foresee the ways we use voice recognition, precision real-time navigation, Bluetooth applications, social media, cloud storage, photography? Not really. We can certainly spot the trends, but we must recognize the details change along the way and technological developments frequently exceed our expectations.
In 2009, smart grid plans were taking shape. At that time, machine learning was more of an idea and the related tools were primitive and not widely accessible. It’s clear to me that 10 years from now many legacy systems will have been replaced, allowing data curation to really mature. Sophisticated analysis of that data will be commonplace, and all stakeholders will have role-based mobile access to the resulting business intelligence.
In 10 years, the industry should have made real progress on its modernization objectives. However, many of the necessary standards are still developing and this brings uncertainty. Grid modernization is more of a journey than a destination; it’s going to be a good ride. Meanwhile, there will still be a lot of poles to inspect and cable to replace!
As you said, technology is moving very rapidly. In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates said, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction." Those are wise words.
MC: GIS is a specific area of focus for you in your career, so what do you think you could tell people in the utility industry about how GIS is currently affecting the business that might surprise them? How will GIS continue to change how we think of what’s possible from utilities?
PH: Many people that I speak to still think of GIS as it was decades ago: primarily just a way to map infrastructure. Today it does so much more, it’s the best way to bring all types of data together – visualize it – understand it – get it in front of more eyeballs!
This simple phrase struck me a few months ago: “the grid is spatial.” It’s hard to even think of a utility concern that doesn’t happen somewhere – customers, crews, work orders, equipment, renewables, weather – it all hinges on location. Once you realize this, it’s easy to see why using GIS is so powerful, as it allows you to understand the utility spatially. Spatial analytics allow fresh understanding of what’s happening and why through patterns, anomalies, and trends. When you add modern artificial intelligence/machine learning to that, then you’ve really got something.
MC: The increasing digitization of utilities affects the business side from the utility perspective but also the customer view of what they’re getting from their power providers. What do you hope will be one or two of the most significant customer experience improvements that arise in the coming years thanks to progressing technologies and utilities embracing data and the digital?
PH: Let’s face it, across the industry customer relationships have not typically been great. I’ve heard it said, the basis of all relationships is shared experience. For most customers, that shared experience is a monthly bill and maybe an outage each year. A modern grid will demand more engaging experiences and relationships, utilities and customers working together toward common interests. That takes additional understanding.
In the digital realm, there is plenty of room for better information exchange between the utility and the customer. The customer should be able to benefit more from choices that support the electric system, such as real-time pricing, investing in smart inverters, or an EV delivering vehicle-to-grid energy at critical times. I believe the utility and customers can both find more value at their respective touchpoints.
MC: If you could go back in time in your utility career and do something different based on what you know now, what might that be? Were there any technologies you were hesitant to utilize, risks you weren’t willing to take, or anything like that that you wish you could redo?
PH: In a perfect world, I would like to have seen less technical debt within organizations along the way. Technical debt is the accumulation of extra burden by taking an easy short-sighted path, like stalling upgrades to systems or processes. As the “debt” increases it becomes harder and harder to “pay off” and take advantage of new capabilities.
If you kick the can down the road long enough the debt grows and grows until it becomes shocking. You get stuck. Someday that debt must be paid. Most utilities don’t want to be on the bleeding edge, but don’t get too far behind.
MC: As an expert for the Digital Utility community on Energy Central, you generously donate your time and expertise to fellow community members in sharing your insights. What compels you to do so and how do you think the Energy Central platform helps to move forward those conversations? What makes you so committed to this network?
PH: I’ve spent my career embracing the classic utility values of service – where employees see customers as their responsibility -- “my customers.” I care about customers and Energy Central is a wonderful platform that facilitates conversations with others that care. There are many issues in the industry. I enjoy writing and am glad to share glimpses from my experience -- I hope readers find them both insightful and enjoyable.
MC: Is there anything else you’d like the community to know that we haven’t covered here?
PH: Energy Central works best as a conversation with feedback. I invite comments and discussion on all my posts. If you have a suggestion please message me, I would love to hear from you.
Many thanks, Pat, for taking the time to share his insights with me in this interview and for the continued efforts as an Energy Central expert. Now that you know a bit more about Pat’s background and his viewpoint, you can tap into him as a resource and ask him questions when you see him engaging the community. The value of Energy Central comes from our vast and interconnected network of utility professionals, so be sure to take full advantage.