Welcome Florian Kolb: New Expert in the Digital Utility Community - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]
- Jan 14, 2021 11:22 am GMT
While the electric power grid was never by any means simple, the sheer scale of it, the necessity of the power it brings, and the new and innovative assets connected across it have only made it even more complex in recent years. Add to that the trend towards modernization and implementation of the smart grid, and the era of the digital utility truly is upon is.
Digitalization of the utility industry means bringing in more data to make fast and smart decisions, allowing for multi-way communication and control of grid assets, and even bringing new actors and stakeholders into the fold. The era of the digital utility is a transformative one, and at Energy Central we always want to make sure you’re in the know about these developments. That’s why we particularly prioritize the Energy Central Network of Experts in the Digital Utility Group. The more thought leaders and industry experts we bring into the fold, the more comprehensive and informative those discussions will be. Today I have the honor of welcoming into that network Florian Kolb. Florian is the Chief Commercial Officer and General Manager of Energy at Intertrust Technologies Corporation. Florian brings to this role years of deep knowledge and vast utility experience, and with his engagement I know the Digital Utility Group will only become more of a must-visit resource for professionals across the sector. To introduce himself to the group and showcase his background, Florian was kind enough to join me and participate in the Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’
Keep reading to see why you should be as excited as I am to have Florian join us!
Matt Chester: Florian, you’re the Chief Commercial Officer and General Manager of Energy at Intertust—but surely it was a long pathway that led you to that place. Can you start by giving our readers an idea of what led you to where you are today? How did you get involved with the utility industry at first and how did the world of digital technologies in the energy space become a calling for you?
Florian Kolb: I joined the utility industry 15 years ago when the European energy company RWE hired me to work at their global headquarters. Throughout the years I held a series of senior managerial roles within RWE which then split up and became innogy. I spent the last five years of this journey in Silicon Valley on their behalf. In 2014, RWE discovered that there is a lack of progress in innovation and a lack of progress in digital. There was also the need to better understand what can be and should be done with utility data. So, they looked around in different parts of the world and finally they identified Silicon Valley as being a relevant place for innovation in the utility data space.
I became the CEO of innogy’s (which is now E.ON) innovation and strategic investment entity in Silicon Valley and ran their global data-driven energy business model efforts. We set up a separate company to identify technologies and start-up/scale-up companies that were doing relevant things for the energy value chain. Over the years, we built a portfolio of around fifteen companies with an investment of $50+ million, Intertrust being our anchor investment. More importantly, next to the investment side, we organized the technology transfer into the core utility operations and new activities in the utility business. This covered the entire value chain: from upstream generation, to grids and down to the energy retail B2C, and B2B business. We also incubated and launched completely new business models. I also founded and started the “Free Electrons Accelerator” program at that time, in which 10 big utilities from around the world work with start-ups to develop and source relevant innovations.
Beginning of 2020, I decided to fully focus on energy tech and joined Intertrust as CCO. Intertrust is a data tech company which is co-owned by E.ON, Origin Energy, a big Silicon Valley and Japan-based VC, and other major corporates. So, that’s how I landed in digital and started to use technologies that would help the energy value chain to digitize.
MC: The digitalization of the utility space is the hot topic recently, and in many ways it still feels like it’s only really just getting started. When you look down the road five or ten years, what possibilities do you see for the digital utility of the future?
FK: To understand the possibilities for the digital utility in the next 5-10 years, we need to analyze the underlying forces for the digital transformation. These are primarily the following:
(1) The continuous decentralization of the energy system that is taking place (for e.g., in places like Germany or California, 30-40% of energy generation is from wind and solar). This will continue to increase.
(2) The electrification of transportation, electric buses, trucks, electric bicycles, scooters, cars: everything is going electric so and this creates electricity generation, distribution and storage challenges for utilities.
(3) To further decarbonize the energy system moving to green energy, many industrialized economies will have to connect the electrical energy, heating/cooling and transportation sectors (Sector Coupling). Still early days, but once this is rolled out more coordination via data and information exchange is required.
Utilities are traditionally very good in managing electrons. With the transformation, data and information and their interoperability becomes more relevant. For every electron that is being produced and shipped in the electrical system, there is a corresponding bit of information being produced. This data increasingly needs to be managed to stabilize and manage the system effectively. Some of this is quite new to utilities.
I think utilities should focus on capturing the possibilities from digital and data. They can expand in becoming energy data managers on top of the existing electrons business. This can improve their existing operations, regulatory positioning or create new revenue and value pools in the unregulated parts of the energy value chain.
MC: The Internet of Things is one area that you at Intertrust are really leaning into within the utility space. While IoT has risked becoming a buzzword that people throw around without recognizing what it truly means, you’ve been truly embracing it at Intertrust. How is the IoT changing the way utilities interact today with their customers, their infrastructure, and their workforce?
FK: Your remarks are right; it’s a bit of a buzzword, but we think that it’s very significant to change the interaction with all these three groups and there are three dimensions to it:
(1) You have real-time data acquisition, you have real-time data processing, and you have real-time decision-making.
(2) There’s more “remoteness” possible via IoT. We experience this right now with the workforce of course, but also with infrastructure assets. When there’s more IoT, you can do more remotely. With B2C and B2B customers, it’s the same. You need fewer in-person interactions, for e.g., via call centers, when customers are using apps in connecting with their utility. This is a big cost issue for utilities and more and more customers prefer digital interactions much more than being in hotline waiting queues.
(3) Everything becomes more forward-looking. Based on data-feeds you can make predictions via machine learning and AI. So, utilities can anticipate better what’s going to happen in a week or month or a year from now and translate this into better planning and decision-making. None of this is possible without data and IoT. Take energy consumption data, for example. More data means more insights, which means better product offerings and energy functionalities. We can also extend behind-the-meter for device management on the customer side to create managed loads. Without IoT, that’s very hard to achieve because you can’t build a proprietary communication infrastructure into every customer’s home if you want to work with a customer to manage loads.
MC: All the excitement surrounding the new technologies in the world of energy of course comes with some risks and concerns—cybersecurity, privacy concerns, etc. What do you think are the big risks that utility leaders must be thinking about and what’s the best way to approach them in a forward-thinking manner?
FK: That’s an aspect of utmost importance. Capturing the possibilities for utilities in becoming more digital only happens when data security, data privacy and data trust are established and present. Otherwise, it’s very hard. There are always risks associated with data. Nobody likes the idea of somebody hacking into grids and switching off the lights. Also, on the retail-side, customer data and information can be exposed. On the generation side also, bad things can happen (if, for e.g., someone manipulates your windfarm). Next to operational risks there are significant reputational risks which need to be considered. Nobody wants to read in the newspaper that you got hacked and sensitive data got exposed.
One classical approach is to create data silos (literally by putting the data onto a machine that is in a secure room you can lock). We don’t think that this approach is possible moving forward because of the decentralization of the energy system. You can’t solve all of the utility challenges in the next 5-10 years with proprietary infrastructures. It’s also simply not possible financially. This worked fine in the old days or still works for legacy infrastructure like nuclear reactors or hydro or in some parts of the grids. You have your own fiber communication line because these are closed systems. But how do you want to do that with millions of EV chargers will come online very soon? How do you do that with millions of electric cars? How do you want to do that with millions of smart meters? How do you do that with billions of sensors in the grid infrastructure that need to adapt very quickly to the addition of new decentral energy assets? That won’t work.
So, what we recommend is that utilities work with innovators in the space of data security, data privacy, and data trust. There are very robust technologies out there that can prevent bad things from happening and still ensure that we can do more with the data, creating trusted and secure energy data ecosystems. Intertrust in one example of such an innovator that has proven many times that this is possible in the energy world. We have successfully created data ecosystems in grid, in renewables and on the customer-side. And the people behind this were utility people that have data risks concerns which could be mitigated. So, you need to open yourself up to work with experts in these fields to avoid security, privacy or trust breaches or losing ground in digital.
MC: We’re so grateful to have you with us as an expert and contributor at Energy Central. Can you explain what brought you to our community and the value you expect to bring to our community members?
FK: Sharing information and experience during the pandemic is more important than ever. I’m stating the obvious, but it’s so valuable to be able to connect and communicate with people that are working on the same business issues and problems. And doing that in a way that is seamless and with a good digital experience is super-important. I also think that the utility industry has over decades developed a very collaborative culture also driven by its engineering culture. Energy Central is an awesome, high quality platform. I like the strong focus and very professional setting. I would like to contribute information and inspire community members and propose very practical solutions to some of the immediate challenges people have. I think this is useful for people as well as for myself. How do I operationalize a solution fast so that my challenge decreases or goes away?
Thanks to Florian Kolb for joining me for this interview and for jumping feet first into the Energy Central community as an expert. Florian is available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see him across the platform.
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