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PGE Ramps Up Innovation Creds with Larry Bekkedahl [Recognizing One of the 2022 Energy Central Innovation Champions: Larry Bekkedahl]

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2022-05 - Leaders In Innovation, click here for more

Earlier this year, Energy Central dispatched our annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation, and we're proud to announce the 4 winners and 2 honorable mentions, which you can read about here. This week, we'll be spotlighting each of those 4 winners after conducting interviews to learn more about their great work. 

Please help us celebrate Larry's and the other champions' successes by reading some of the insights garnered from these exclusive Innovation Champion Interviews.

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Larry Bekkedahl, Senior Vice President of Advanced Energy Delivery at Portland General Electric (PGE), says utilities need to rebuild their innovation muscle. By this, he means that they should refocus their operational priorities. “You could get a doctorate in research while working when I started in the industry in the 1980s,” he says. In the following decade, as utilities deployed results of that research, they got up caught up in the regulation that followed their innovations.

That mindset continues till today. But they need to hark back to their earlier mode in the current operating environment, according to Bekkedahl. This is because their environment today is ‘dynamic’, one that has a mix of smart grid infrastructure and demand generation resources that transforms customers into stakeholders.

The challenge for utilities is integrating these devices into an already complex grid. And that means changing the way they operate. “We need to use innovation, put it into practice. That muscle needs to develop,” says Bekkedahl.

At PGE, Bekkedahl is one among several people responsible for flexing that muscle. The utility has many initiatives and partnerships in place to accelerate its journey on the innovation path.

Among their most important initiatives is the Integrated Operations Center (IOC). Inaugurated last year, the center brings the operations of disparate units within PGE under a single umbrella. PGE has also partnered with tech and communications companies, such as Intel and Google, to brainstorm ideas about the utility of the future. And it has many initiatives, from smart grid test beds to partnerships with startups like WeaveGrid for electric vehicle chargers, to implement and scale existing tech trends.

Innovating the PGE Grid 

PGE’s turn towards innovation comes from necessity. The Pacific Northwest has been pummeled by the worst symptoms of climate change – wildfires, excessive heat, and snowfall – in recent years and the utility’s operations have borne the brunt of nature’s fury. Its grid has been battered by snowstorms and rippling outages at the peak of summer due to excessive demand have damaged its reputation. Dynamic devices and demand generation resources have further complicated the situation.  

At the center of PGE’s innovation strategy is the Integrated Operations Center. Bekkedahl calls it the “nerve center” of the company’s operations. It streamlines operations and is used to manage natural disasters.

Two hundred and twenty employees from various departments work under a single roof at the Center in Southwest Portland. They have cutting-edge technology at their disposal and a slew of data points to monitor and analyze the grid. For example, a state-of-the-art control system provides employees with a snapshot of the grid’s operations at any given time and changes colors based on issues affecting the grid.

The innovation in technology is complemented by a rethinking of teams and their responsibilities. Previously, the Transmission and Distribution units were one team and their responsibilities often overlapped. They are different units now and the scope of their jobs have evolved. “We need to see more into Distribution and we want to see closer to [customer] homes with dynamic devices,” says Bekkedahl. Other divisions, that were separate earlier, now work together. For example, the emergency response and customer support teams work together to handle customer issues.

PGE has also created new teams of data scientists and analytics professionals. They analyze data gathered from the grid that feeds into operational priorities. For example, their inputs are used to craft strategy in the company’s demand response programs that boasts 10,000 customers and approximately 80 MW capacity.

Analytics and equipment monitoring helps PGE determine the flexibility that such programs enable with existing load. “I like to think of customer’s generators as a church building…it should not only be used on Sundays. Why not use them on other days of the week as well?” says Bekkedahl. Given rapid changes to weather patterns, the role of meteorologists has also become important contributor to the center’s operations. “Earlier, when I started, wind data meant storms but now it means how much energy can I store [in the grid],” says Bekkedahl.

Through the churn of building new teams and reformulating existing ones, the utility has managed to strike a balance between experience and fresh ideas. “Sometimes, it [innovation] is also about unleashing existing personnel onto new systems,” he says.

Its criticality to PGE’s operations apart, the IOC is only one part of an ‘innovation loop’ within the company. That loop begins with an idea that could come from anywhere and anyone.

A small team, tasked especially with creating use cases for ideas, tests the individual idea by ‘fleshing’ it out with other departments in the utility. “You need to walk it through the steps to determine whether it is a go or no go,” says Bekkedahl. The idea is deployed to IOC only after it has been tested and is ready to be scaled.

The IOC also receives inputs from other sources. One of them is the Connected Utility Lab, which is a partnership that PGE formed with leading tech and communication companies like Google and T-Mobile. The marriage of tech, communication, and power industries helps PGE reimagine the utility as one of the rails of a connected ecosystem in the future. “We are thinking about connected customers. We are thinking about connected devices. And we are thinking about connected employees,” explains Bekkedahl. PGE has also partnered with WeaveGrid, a San Francisco-based startup that connects electric vehicles to the grid. 

Then there are the smart grid test beds. PGE is testing out initiatives in three different communities – a low-income neighborhood, a retirement home for seniors, and a mixed development consisting of commercial real-estate and residential apartments. Depending on the results of experiments at the test bed, PGE plans to deploy new strategies either out on the field or scale them within the IOC.

Innovation As an Individual Act

Bekkedahl has had a long career in the utility industry and grappled with innovation in various forms. “Traditionally, innovation in utilities is a Sisyphean task,” he says. “You just keep pushing the rock over the hill and, for some, the rock runs them over eventually.”

Bekkedahl is an impatient man. “I like to take the rock and put it in a polisher to see if it has any value,” he says. What this means is that he willing to take ideas for a test drive to see if they can handle the ups and downs of a grid. Even if the idea itself fails, he says, there might be some good pieces in it. “Quit pushing the rock, take the good ideas, make a decision, and move on,” he recommends.

For colleagues in the industry, his advice is to benchmark first and then execute. He cites an Innovation Maturity Level review conducted for ten US and international utilities some years ago that proved a wakeup call for PGE. The utility finished last in the review. “In order to get better, you need to know where you are at,” says Bekkedahl. He recommends using the resources of non-profits like the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and attending startup conferences.

But the first questions should always be directed inwards. “Look to how innovation is done in your company,” he says. “Only after that, begin to ask other companies how they are doing it.”  

Eventually, he says innovation is an individual act. “If it is not in your DNA, then you will not be successful [in implementing it].” Therefore, it is important to create conditions and encourage employees to come forward with their ideas.

Discussions

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Dave Bryant's picture
Dave Bryant on May 27, 2022

Great article and selection of Larry Bekkedahl. 

Mike Beehler's picture
Mike Beehler on Jun 12, 2022

Congratulations Larry.  Well deserved.  You do a lot for our industry!   All the best.  Mike

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