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Branndon Kelley of American Municipal Power: 2021 Energy Central Innovation Champion

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Audra Drazga's picture
Vice President of The Power Industry Network Energy Central

I am the VP of the Energy Central Power Industry Network.  In this role, I help to connect professionals in the power industry through the development and management of topic-specific community...

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-04 - Leaders In Innovation, click here for more

In early February, Energy Central dispatched our second annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation. We asked our community to nominate leaders who they thought were charging the path for rapid evolution across the sector today-- explicitly looking for those who carry the necessary attitudes to adapt to change while embracing and encouraging new ideas. 

The response was overwhelming, making it challenging for the Energy Central Community Team and our committee of industry thought leaders-- selected from among our Energy Central Network of Experts-- to narrow the list of nominees to the final six Champions of Innovation. 

I am happy to announce that Branndon Kelley, Senior Vice President of Technology and Chief Information Officer at American Municipal Power, was chosen as one of our final six. Branndon was nominated for his key role in AMP's internal IT transformation and his forward-focused cybersecurity management programs. 

Recently, Matt Chester, Energy Central's Community Manager, interviewed Branndon for our Innovation Champion Interview series. The following is a transcript of the interview and insight into Branndon’s thoughts and strategies surrounding building his team and programs at AMP. Additionally, you can offer congratulations to Branndon by leaving a message in the comments section at the bottom of this article, or even feel free to share a general question or comment for him on these important topics.

Congratulations Branndon!


 

How Branndon got started

I'm the Senior Vice President of Technology and Chief Information Officer for American Municipal Power, which is a Joint Action Agency made up of 135 members in nine states. AMP’s members represent municipalities that own and operate their electric system. I oversee all technology ꟷ your traditional back-office IT, ERP, email, network, et cetera. I also am responsible for enterprise cybersecurity and a large portion of AMP’s Operations Technology (OT) ꟷ SCADA and other related systems. Additionally, I oversee our technology enablement / technology solutions practice, which are a part of the member services we provide and consists of Advanced Metering Infrastructure solutions and Cyber Security Solutions.

Prior to joining AMP, the bulk of my career was in consulting. I concentrated on large consulting projects, and eventually advanced into more regional, smaller consulting to run my own practice ꟷ AMP was a client. AMP’s CIO had just resigned and considering my prior experience running an IT shop inside of a large consulting firm (acting as CIO), I was sought out to assist AMP for what was initially two weeks for some baseline assessments, helping the CFO and the executive management team get things in order Two weeks, that was my original scope of work. That's turned into a little longer. Now it's 12 years. In the 12 years I've been here, 10 months of that was as a consultant, and then 11 years ago I accepted an executive position at AMP as CIO.

 

The importance of Innovation to the world of cybersecurity and IT

Innovation has been a part of what I do my entire career. I'm constantly looking at things that we do and seeing if there are better ways to be more efficient, drive down complexity and increase the value in results. I've always used that as a principle, even going back as a fundamental principle in being a good consultant ꟷ thinking innovatively and questioning the norm, and challenging the idea of, "well, that's how we always do it."

When I joined AMP, I was brought in to help really prepare and respond to and deliver the technology, the IT, the systems and the process to support that. Two things happened there. One, the organization had never really had this true type of CIO leadership, and so therefore they didn't quite understand how to get there, and more importantly, what was going to be expected of them. Coming to AMP from the outside allowed me to really look without any bias I dug into the processes and systems and the way AMP was accustomed to doing things. I was able to introduce new technologies, deliver on new processes and ideas, and demonstrate how AMP could become an operating company.

A lot of people are talking about innovation now. It seems to be very buzzy, but it's always been a part of the way I work, I think, fundamentally, because of early in my career as being a consultant, I had to be innovative and solutions driven.

 

Examples of successful Innovation projects at AMP

The foundation to do anything innovative, any of the new digital things rapidly developing, is centered on connectivity and data. You've got to have connectivity. Whether that's a mesh network or a traditional wired network or a cellular network, you've got to have connectivity out there to get the sensor data, and to collect the data.

The other thing is you've got these big, huge data sources now, that you have to do something with, you have to secure it Any time you introduce additional connectivity in any environment, especially in environments that would be considered critical infrastructure, any time you start storing massive amounts of data that someone could take and utilize to learn about your asset or your business, cybersecurity becomes critically important.

As we help drive innovation out to our members through our Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) program, understanding our municipal members average about 7,500 meters is important. Most of AMP’s membership is on the other side of that, 5,000 meters or less. These are municipalities that without the AMP developed AMI program that would not be deploying smart grid, would not be deploying the foundation for smart cities. Now, the reverse of that is when they start deploying smart cities and smart grids because of our program. Now all of a sudden, what used to be an electromechanical meter out hanging on a house that didn't necessarily have any connectivity, now is a computer. That is a network connection point, so cybersecurity becomes really, really important. Now all of a sudden, if AMP didn't take this approach with the cybersecurity, we're delivering innovation but with additional cyber risk. Alternatively, sometimes municipalities are introducing their own innovation through something they're doing themselves and they don't always understand or prepare for the added risk and all of a sudden they have unwittingly just increased their threat surface and cyber risk tremendously.

As a result of all the newly introduced technology, municipalities end up needing help deploying it in a secure and maintainable way. AMP has developed a program to address this need and can deliver it.  With our Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) program, AMP members can deploy the exact same AMI smart grid technology that large investor-owned utilities and large, tech-leading cities across the world  are deploying. Additionally, through the AMP AMI program, subscribers have enterprise-level cybersecurity to be as prepared and protected as possible.

When it comes to cybersecurity we created a Cyber Program to help our members directly.   We can assess their security level and give them a baseline that they can work from. We also benchmark them against industry frameworks like the CIS Controls and the Department of Energy Cybersecurity Capability Maturity Model (C2M2). We also give them actionable items that they can use to improve their cyber posture and even walk them through a tabletop exercise based around a real-life ransomware attack. We’ve pooled these items and others into a self-contained assessment that we can do efficiently and cost effectively. Feedback on the program has been very positive.  The program has been so successful that we are partnering with a national public power service provider to make the program available to any municipality in the country.

Finally, the work that we did received significant interest from public power in general. Myself and members of my team have been invited to speak at many conferences regarding our innovative approach to delivering these solutions. Ultimately, this sparked a significant interest from several other public power joint-action agencies leading to the asset purchase of Hometown Connections International from the American Public Power Association (APPA) and the creation of Hometown Connections, Inc. to offer these and other such programs to all of public power and community-owned utility systems.

 

Branndon's Innovation lessons learned on the job

A key lesson I have learned throughout my career is to spend more time on education, as the learning curve to get folks wrapped around this digital journey is tough. It took a lot of time, in many cases, of me and my staff educating our members on the importance and value of starting this journey. When we put these programs together and we put the business cases together, we did a lot of research. We had working groups with subsets of members, and I became very optimistic, based on the feedback, that the curve of adoption would be like straight in the air. The reality is that the utility business is risk averse.

Municipalities and cities, a lot of times are risk-averse, and they're also resource-constrained. Many municipalities are not only constrained with available funding, but constrained by low staffing levels.  Some might have funding set aside to do such a project, but they only have one person for the job. That person cannot pivot to this project because they're working on something else. If I could, I would go back in time and I would tell myself to spend more time educating these people on how our program, how this innovation, would be impactful. Demonstrating and explaining the benefits more upfront would likely help increase adoption of the program.

 

Building towards an Innovative tomorrow

Innovation is a core value at AMP. We're doing a couple of different things here. One thing to note is that AMP recently launched what we call our moonshot initiative. Each one of our executive managers were basically assigned an idea. Each moonshot team conducted  a whole idea-gathering exercise. Then we took that idea-gathering at the executive management level and we narrowed it down to a handful of ideas, or moonshots, to dive deeper into.. Each moonshot, or one of the ideas  had an executive team member assigned to it and selected cross-functional team members  them to chase each idea. The moonshots are centered on ideas concerning green energy, additional analytics with AMI data, how to increase customer and member engagement,   the Internet of Things, sensor data and things that are happening within generation. There's just a breadth of ideas flowing.

Future innovation in utilities is going to be in distributed generation, rooftop solar, peer-to-peer transactions, et cetera. It's going to be that widget that hasn't been created yet that allows you to store enough electricity in a box that is only so big, and how does that disrupt the utility? All of that is going to require those two foundations I mentioned before ꟷ connectivity and data ꟷ which is going to put more emphasis on folks like me and my team to be able to foster ideas, build processes and deliver on things that successfully help.

 

 

Energy Central thanks Branndon Kelley for his irreplaceable contributions to our great industry and for truly embodying what it is to be an Innovation Champion. We encourage leaders to share 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.

Audra Drazga's picture
Thank Audra for the Post!
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PJ Davis's picture
PJ Davis on Apr 27, 2021

Congrats Branndon! Well done!

Rachael Lewis's picture
Rachael Lewis on May 4, 2021

Congratulations Innovation Champ Brandon for your work on IT transformation and cyber-security management!

Patrick McGarry's picture
Patrick McGarry on May 17, 2021

Congrats Branndon! Well deserved.

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