Welcome Danielle Vitoff: New Expert in the Utility Management Community - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]
- Sep 1, 2020 11:12 am GMT
Sustainability has undoubtedly gone from a niche ‘nice-to-have’ feature of business and projects to a building block upon which so many successful initiatives and enterprises are made. Utilities are no exception, and today the focus on sustainability goes beyond simply talking about ‘green’ power that they generate but includes complex and nuanced offerings aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of power providers and customers, all while ensuring reliability and affordability of energy remains paramount.
The goal of sustainability is admirable, but implementation can be challenging for any number of reasons. The utility industry must continue to lean upon the experts in the field who know the markets, the regulations, and technologies best suited to deliver carbon savings and environmental benefits. One such thought leader recently became an expert in Energy Central’s Utility Management community: Danielle Vitoff, Associate Director at Guidehouse.
As the latest member of our Network of Experts, Danielle was excited to share her background with the Energy Central community and invite questions so that she could help others benefit from her experience and insights. Please enjoy my interview with Danielle as a part of the Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’
Matt Chester: Let’s get things started off easy, Danielle. Can you please give a quick introduction of yourself to the Energy Central audience? How did you get involved in the energy industry, and what pathway did you take to end up where you are today working on utility initiatives with Guidehouse?
Danielle Vitoff: Absolutely, I would love to share a little about myself. Sustainability has always been a driver for me, but I didn’t start in the energy industry, and I had no idea what a consultant was when I graduated college. My background is actually in architecture. I graduated from college in 2010 with degrees in environmental design and environmental studies. After a short internship with Efficiency Vermont, I spent my next years working for a small architecture firm focused on high-performance and zero net energy building design.
As I moved on to grad school, I found a job with Guidehouse (then known as Navigant) and spent my time working on whole-building energy efficiency evaluations. From that start, I have evolved in the Guidehouse team, building my experience around sustainability and decarbonization and taking any opportunity to work with energy-sector clients. I love that work the best because of the complexity of the problems.
The role I play in the Guidehouse team is really one of a connector – I work to understand the market drivers, the stakeholders, and the trends to be able to contextualize the amazing technical work that our team produces every day. And there is no more exciting place to play that role than in and around utilities, which are facing an extraordinary transformational challenge in the next decades.
MC: You work with corporations in helping them to calculate their carbon footprints. What does that process look like, and how have you seen companies use the insights gained during that process?
DV: The pressure that is being put on corporations to not only understand but actively manage their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is growing by the day. Questions related to GHG emissions are now common in investor calls, and access to money is now being tied to ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance.
While there are global standards that govern the methodology for calculating a corporation’s GHG footprint, there is also the process of actually gathering that data from sources across the company, and new data quality issues can come up frequently. Developing a GHG emissions inventory for a corporation can be more about playing detective than anything else. In many cases, we end up pulling data from almost every department in an organization by the time we are done.
But what I find most interesting in this process is the almost philosophical discussion of impact and responsibility. It is eye-opening to many companies that global protocols exist for capturing the impact of their business beyond their doors. For instance, the emissions from the electricity used to power the device that they sell after it reaches a consumer’s home is considered part of the company’s Scope 3 footprint. These discussions of impact and responsibility drive home the global connectivity of the climate crisis that we are facing and become a starting point for innovation with many companies.
MC: Do you think that utilities are doing enough to engage their customers on sustainability initiatives and ways to reduce carbon output? Are there strategies in the programs you’ve been involved in that you think utilities would be well-served to learn from?
DV: This is a really hard question to answer because, truthfully, the utility industry would in many ways receive a failing grade on this, but they are not fully to blame. And, importantly, there are some shining examples of success!
The electric utility industry is a regulated industry and is required to deliver a reliable source of power at a low-cost for the public good. What does that mean? For most utilities, it means that what is of the most importance to them is that when you flip your light switch, the lights come on every time (not 99% of the time – every time), and that when you receive your bill, it is considered reasonable. In many ways, this ties utility hands. While customers may be asking for clean energy and carbon reductions – and while utilities may want to provide that – it does not actually connect to the requirements that they are under or the way that they are allowed to make money. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of caveats to that statement, but the bottom line is that utility business models are in many ways not aligned with offering innovative sustainability solutions to their customers and that in itself is the problem.
Like I mentioned, though, there are some shining examples of success. And in hopes of not making anyone feel like they were left off the list, I am going to revert back to the utility that I know the best because of where I grew up – Green Mountain Power in Vermont. Green Mountain Power has shown some incredible leadership in engaging customers around sustainability. For example, they offer an “off the grid” solution for customers to combine solar and battery storage to generate clean energy without being connected to the grid because it is cheaper for the utility to offer this solution than to connect some customers.
MC: Overall, the utility industry is undoubtedly entering a new era where they are being pushed to innovate and address customer needs in ways they never had been before. How do you think that plays out during the course of the next decade? Are utilities up to the challenge, or do you expect to see those needs being filled by non-utility actors?
DV: I am going to start with pointing out that the real question is not whether utilities are up to the challenge, but whether utilities, regulators, policymakers, environmental advocates, customers, and all other stakeholders are up to the challenge. Utilities are a key player here, but as a regulated industry, they are reliant on the rest of the system to move with them. Utilities can lead, but they are tied into the system in a way that they can’t get too far in front of the pack without being pulled back.
When I look at the needs of the next decades – to provide cleaner and more distributed energy, to address customer needs in real time, to manage more and more data, etc. – utilities are going to need to find a new pair of shoes, dust off the gym equipment, and get moving. That said, I would offer a series of considerations for everyone that wants to see transformation in the energy sector:
- Learn as much as you can about this industry. Utilities are not Amazon and, as such, they need to be supported and pushed in different ways. They are not the bad guy in the room if you understand what they do and do not have control over.
- Push your policymakers to learn as much as they can about the energy sector before passing policy. Much of the policy that we see around the energy sector has good intent, but very significant unintended consequences that may actually limit the effectiveness of delivering on a decarbonized energy sector.
- State your needs in clear and simple terms, while recognizing that because utilities serve everyone in the community, your ask is going to affect both the person that cannot pay to keep their lights on and the person that has a 20,000-square-foot home with 10 cars.
- And finally, recognize that utility representatives are often experts in their space. If you are actually willing to sit down and problem-solve with them, there is great work that can be done and innovation that can occur, but everyone around the table has to be open to working with one another.
MC: Any concluding thoughts for the Energy Central Community?
DV: If you haven’t already recognized it, I am incredibly passionate about the topic of decarbonization. If you disagree with anything that I have said, want to learn more, or just want to open a dialogue, please reach out. I want to engage in any way that I can be helpful. The more I learn from listening, the more I can make an impact.
Thanks to Danielle Vitoff for joining Energy Central as an expert and taking the time to participate in this interview series. As she noted, she welcomes your outreach and you can connect with her as an Energy Central member. When you see Danielle engaging with content around Energy Central, don’t be a stranger!
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