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Astrid Atkinson of Camus Energy to Share with DISTRIBUTECH Guests the Evolving Relationship Between Utilities & Customers - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]

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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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It’s no secret that the utility sector is amidst one of the grandest transformations ever undertaken. Gone are the days where customers would think about their power providers once or twice a month. The electrification of vehicles and buildings and the pervasiveness of distributed energy resources have upended the traditional utility-customer relationship, and forward-looking utilities are deploying new operations and planning tools in response to this paradigm shift.

At next month’s DISTRIBUTECH conference, Astrid Atkinson, CEO and Co-Founder of Camus Energy, will join utility leaders from PPL Electric, Vermont Electric Cooperative, and the former CEO of Australia’s market operator for ‘Consumers as Partners: The Evolving Utility Business Model.’ This can’t-miss panel discussion will focus on the changing role of utility customers and the resulting impact on utility business models, including the development of more DSO-like utilities.

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The panel will be held on Tuesday, February 7 at the DISTRIBUTECH conference in San Diego; but to kickstart the conversations around this topic, Astrid sat down with Energy Central to give a preview of the topic, her insights, and why this panel should be added to all attendees’ agendas. If you have any thoughts or questions for Astrid ahead of DISTRIBUTECH, be sure to share them in the comments below to start the conversation before even showing up on the conference floor!

 

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Matt Chester: Before we dive into the topics you’ll be sharing at DISTRIBUTECH, let’s introduce you to the Energy Central audience. Can you tell us a bit about Camus Energy, its role in the utility sector, and how you found yourself in this industry?

Astrid Atkinson: Personally, my background is in large-scale computing, reliability models, software, infrastructure, and operations. I was part of the team that helped Google develop their software reliability model for their global computing infrastructure, and I led a lot of software infrastructure development during their period of early scaling from about 2004 to 2012. Because of that, I have a lot of background in building and operating high reliability systems targeting utility grade and 99.995% or better reliability targets. When I began looking at what I wanted to do after Google, I focused on opportunities to apply Google’s software technology approaches to related fields. Another big factor was my (now 10-year-old) son. I wanted to work in an area that would help me foster a better future for him, which led me to explore applications in the climate and energy space.

Speaking to Camus Energy, we work with utilities, primarily distribution utilities, and we provide software that helps them integrate data about their grids and current operating conditions, everything from SCADA network conditions to GIS and interconnections to third-party data about customer resources. We pull that together to make it actionable in several ways. The biggest piece is understanding, planning for, and operating distributed energy resources within the local grid landscape. But that also includes analytics workflows like interconnection planning and forecasting. We then model workflows, such as evaluating load and generation forecasts, pulling all that data together to provide the data backbone for the next-generation grid.

 

MC: The Panel you’ll be appearing on at DISTRIBUTECH is called “Customers as Partners: The Evolving Utility Business Model.” We’ll link to the event so our readers can check it out, but give us the quick teaser: why is this a panel that those who will be at DISTRIBUTECH should be highlight in their agenda?

AA: A lot of my past work in high-reliability engineering and operations for software systems focused around visibility and operator controls within complex systems. One of the really big lessons from that was that in order to safely operate a system that's changing rapidly, you need comprehensive visibility. Bringing together data alongside key planning and operations tools is something we see as fundamental to managing change within any system. Utilities often view this as multiple distinct problems when really it breaks down to one interrelated challenge. It’s all about using available data to understand what's happening, make plans for what needs to happen, and take action to make that plan a reality.

I mention that because when we think about the ways that the grid is changing, one of the central shifts is the trend towards 100% electrification of our energy loads. A lot of the change that's happening is taking place on the customer side: using new devices, adding new loads, installing local generation capabilities. As we transition to 100% electrification, we're not just seeing load growth; we're also seeing a massive increase in complexity. So much of that complexity is on the customer side, and it requires a new relationship with the customer. Fundamentally, we need to start thinking about the customer as a participant in managing the grid. And we really need to think about customers as partners in this transition. These are the topics we’ll be diving more deeply into during the panel.

 

MC: In terms of this being the right time for such a shift, you mentioned the circumstantial trends of electrification that is pushing these changes to be necessary. But from the customer side, are they pushing for this more partnership role?

AA: The role of the customer varies a lot by the specific community and the challenges that they're seeing. There are parts of the U.S. where customers have a keen desire to take on a more active role in the grid. I live in California, where recent storms and outages have led to a lot of discussion around ways that customers can increase their own resilience and whether or not they want to interact with the grid. In other parts of the country, there's a lot of load growth and customers are putting in interconnection requests for things like fleet electrification or new data centers. They’re seeing those interconnection queues back up for months – and customers are wondering if they worked more closely with the utility, could that go faster?

But I think one thing that unifies all those customer stories is that whenever customers are looking at putting new technologies on the grid, they're paying for it. And customers are pretty much always interested in ways to offset the costs of those assets. The point in time when a customer is looking at investing in an energy technology or in electrification is a great moment to engage the customers and help offset those costs. There's almost always some ways for EVs, heat pumps, and batteries to be grid supporting, and there's almost always some economic value in that. If you can engage the customer at that moment and offer major cost savings in exchange for visibility into the loads, help with peak shaving, etc., people are usually pretty interested.

 

MC: What exactly is Camus doing differently to encourage this transition? The shift towards DERs and customer engagement has made it so that the problem is more widely known, but the industry doesn’t necessarily have a consensus on the right solution(s) moving forward. So where is your organization breaking new ground here?

AA: One of the things that we saw when we first started looking at the very crowded DER space is that there are a lot of companies focusing on managing particular DERs or working with customers to get smart devices deployed. For almost all of them, they are missing a tier in the value stack. They're optimizing customer bills and arbitraging against utility costs, but they’re not making money on the grid services they could provide. One of the big missing pieces in the next-generation grid is being able to tie together a deep understanding of what's happening on the grid with the management of those devices – so that DERs can play a significant role in operating the grid.

That's where we focus as a company, orchestrating customer- and utility-owned DERs in a grid-aware way. What are the good conditions that we're managing within? What are the concerns that we're managing around? And then we tie that back to everything from load control programs to orchestration of individual assets or devices below a feeder or a substation or a distribution transformer. How do you make those devices useful and how do you put that data to work? Bringing those pieces together is something that not many in the space are doing. And that is the place where we really stand out.

 

MC: What’s a key message you’d want to share with utilities approaching these topics? Are there any common misconceptions you’d want to dispel?

AK: There are a lot of different models around the country for how this transition is happening, and I think it's often easy for bigger utilities to think about their transition model as being fundamentally different from what's happening with the co-ops and community-based utilities. But there's a lot of work that is happening right now, particularly in the co-op sector, that's groundbreaking and really pushing the envelope on what's possible in the electrification and grid modernization. One of our goals for this conversation is to talk about some of those common threads between the public sector utilities that are moving quickly and the investor-owned utilities that have a lot of scale. We want to identify the insights we can learn from the public sector utilities that are really blazing trails.

 

MC: Are there any other topics you see on the agenda at DISTRIBUTECH that you’re ever to explore as an attendee or audience member, outside of sharing your expertise in the panel previously mentioned?

AK: One of the tracks of conversation that I've been looking at closely is cybersecurity. There's a big presentation on Tuesday morning from people at the Department of Energy and a couple of utility experts talking about cybersecurity models and the future grid. I think that’s a really pressing area and something that is evolving quickly. For me personally, those are probably the sessions I'm most interested in attending in addition to the DER and grid-edge sessions.

 

MC: To wrap up and tease the exciting DISTRIBUTECH panel once again, what’s the simple teaser you’d leave our audience with for why they should be sure to check it out?

AK: As we think about the road to 100% electrification and moving all our energy use onto the grid, utilities are thinking about how to enlist customers as partners in that transition. Leveraging the connectivity of the grid and the long-term relationship of utilities and customers is essential to transitioning to a reliable, affordable, and decarbonized grid. We’ll be exploring how leading utilities are evolving their customer relationships today and what it might mean for the utility of the future. Come join the conversation.

 

 

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Thanks once again to Astrid Atkinson of Camus Energy for sharing her time and insights in this interview. Be sure to check out his session at DISTRIBUTECH ‘Consumers as Partners: The Evolving Utility Business Model’ on February 7 at 2:10 PM. And if you’re planning on being at DISTRIBUTECH be on the lookout for her as well as the Energy Central team on the conference floor. We’re looking forward to connecting in person with our Community Members there!

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