Podcast / Audio

Episode #58: 'Setting an Example for Utilities Everywhere via SEPA’s Utility Transformation Challenge' with Sharon Allan of SEPA, Debra Smith of Seattle City Light, Part 1 [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

Posted to Energy Central in the Clean Power Professionals Group
image credit: Energy Central
Energy Central  Podcasts's picture
Voices of The Community Energy Central

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

  • Member since 2020
  • 67 items added with 124,523 views
  • Nov 9, 2021
  • 1193 views

The utility industry is a unique one in that the landscape of companies aren’t operating in a zero-sum competitive environment. Instead, utilities seek to share lessons learned, raise each other up, and collectively move towards the industry-wide goals of ensuring the entire country has access to reliable, affordable, and clean energy. It’s this collaborative environment and tendency to share best practices that makes leadership in utilities particularly important, as a success in one corner of the country can directly lead to the same type of success for a utility anywhere else. Recognizing the value of highlighting these successes, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) released its inaugural Utility Transformation Challenge, recognizing industry leaders who are creating the future carbon-free, modern grid.

To learn more about the Utility Transformation Challenge, podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester are joined by SEPA’s Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Sharon Allan, as well as a leader whose organization made an appearance on SEPA’s leaderboard of utilities in Debra Smith, CEO and General Manager of Seattle City Light. This duo provides a dynamic one-two punch on assessing the landscape of the utility industry today and where it’s going in the future. The conversation was so dynamic, this episode ended up being an exciting two-parter—so enjoy Part 1 which focuses on the Utility Transformation Challenge and the march towards decarbonization. Then hang tight for Part 2 where this pair of industry leaders dives into forward-looking assessments of equity in the energy industry, as well as the pending workforce transformation facing utilities everywhere.

Update: Part 2 can be listened to here once you're done enjoying part 1!

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

Key Links:

Part 2 of this Episode: 

Sharon Allan’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/sharon-allan-2/about

Grid Mod in the Age of Utility Carbon Reduction: https://energycentral.com/c/gr/grid-mod-age-utility-carbon-reduction

Seattle City Light's Clean Energy Leadership Garnering Industry Recognition, with Emeka Anyanwu, Energy and Innovation & Resources Officer- [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]: https://energycentral.com/o/energy-central/seattle-city-lights-clean-energy-leadership-garnering-industry-recognition-emeka

Did you know? The Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast has been identified as one of the industry's 'Top 25 Energy Podcasts': https://blog.feedspot.com/energy_podcasts/

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, the show that brings to our audience the leading minds and voices of the energy and utility industry, a forum where experts can describe their passion projects, challenges met along the way, and lessons to share with peers across the sector. In today's episode, we're going to be hearing from two esteemed guests who have a direct hand in the ongoing transformation of the power industry. I know anyone working in this space will appreciate the depth of complexity that they will discuss in today's episode. My name is Jason Price of West Monroe. I'm coming to you from New York City. Joining me from Orlando, Florida, is Matt Chester, Energy Central's community manager, and podcast producer. Matt, how are you feeling, and what are you expecting from today's episode?

Matt Chester: 
I'm feeling great. I'm feeling excited because we have two heavy hitters in the industry with us today. Honestly, I just expect to sit back and learn a lot.

Jason Price: 
I agree. Really, the utility industry for decades has been stuck with a reputation for being conservative to change, slow to move, and even a bit behind the times. But recent years have seen an industry-wide shift. In particular, the utilities at the leading edge have blown past expectations to rival the Amazons and Googles of the world, to be some of the most innovative companies out there. To be sure, some energy companies continue to lag behind. But the example being set by the leaders in the space have directly transferable lessons on how to bring those laggards forward. Sharing those insights is what today's episode is going to be all about. Specifically, we're going to be highlighting how certain industry leaders have been recognized for their work towards a carbon-free modern grid by the Utility Transformation Challenge, which is run by the Smart Electric Power Alliance, or SEPA.

Jason Price: 
We'll be joined shortly by one of SEPAs leaders to share about what this challenge is and how the industry as a whole performed this past year. She's not coming alone, as we'll also be joined by the CEO of one of the utilities that scored exceedingly high marks on SEPA's Utility Transformation Challenge. Before we introduce our two exciting guests, we want to first acknowledge the energy essential partners who are making today's episode possible.

Jason Price: 
To West Monroe: West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics, and cybersecurity.

Jason Price: 
To Esri: Esri is an international supplier of geographic information, GIS software, web GIS, and geodatabase management applications.

Jason Price: 
To Guidehouse, formally Navigate Research: a premier market research and advisory firm covering the global energy transformation.

Jason Price: 
To Anterix: Anterix is focused on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy transportation, logistics, and other sectors of our economy.

Jason Price: 
And to Scott Madden: Scott Madden is a management consulting firm serving clients across the energy utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include transmission and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy, more rates and regulations, corporate sustainability, and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, organize departments and entire companies, and implement myriad of initiatives.

Jason Price: 
Now, on to today's guest. First, we want to introduce Sharon Allan, the chief strategy and innovation at the Smart Electric Power Alliance, or SEPA. Sharon has held this role for nearly five years. But her experience in the utility sector goes back almost two decades. Sharon has always had her hands in the technology arena, identifying and shepherding in digital opportunities and finding new ways that businesses could achieve their tasks more efficiently and effectively. It's no wonder that she ended up finding her way into the energy industry and why she's so passionate to speak about how grid modernization, infrastructure resilience, and clean energy are all going to define this great industry moving forward. Specifically, Sharon has had a key role in the Utility Transformation Challenge, SEPAs comprehensive, honest assessment of US electric utilities progress towards a modern carbon-free energy system. Sharon is a long-time member of the energy-centric community. Sharon Allan, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspective Podcast.

Sharon Allan: 
Thanks, Jason. It's shocking to me to reflect back that it's actually been 20 years that I've been speaking and publishing with Energy Central. Thanks to you today, Jason, for the opportunity to speak with you and Deb about the Utility Transformation Challenge. I look forward to our conversation today.

Jason Price: 
Fantastic, as do we. Glad to have you with us. To give us a perspective from inside the utilities being evaluated by the Utility Transformation Challenge, we're also joined by Debra Smith, the CEO and general manager of Seattle City Light. Debra is a utility sector lifer, having spent the first two decades of her career moving up in the ranks at Eugene Water & Electric Board before being selected as a CEO and general manager at Central Lincoln PUD. After successful years, she moved to the same role at Seattle City Light in 2018, where she's expertly guided the municipal utility through the period of most rapid change. As we all know, these include decarbonization, modernization, COVID 19, and doing everything necessary to keep the lights running during all of this.

Jason Price: 
But Debra and her team has done much more than just keep the status quo. In recognition of that achievement, they earned a prestigious position on the 2021 SEPA Utility Transformation Leaderboard. SEPA found Seattle City Light an obvious leader due to its comprehensive efforts towards a carbon-free energy future. Most importantly, its results being nationally recognized for these efforts is no small feat. We're excited to hear from Debra about what the honor means to the company and how they expect to continue to uphold this fantastic reputation. Debra Smith, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Debra Smith: 
Thank you so much, Jason, Matt, and Sharon. I don't know what's more intimidating being called or being referred to as someone who expertly guides anything or, in your opening comments, being a heavy hitter. But I'll have to think about that. What I do know is for the utility, it's been an honor to be selected by SEPA to be on the Transformation Leaderboard. I do believe that transformation is a process that never stops. We can always do better. I'm someone who always aspires to do better. We, at Seattle City Light, are excited to have participated in this challenge with SEPA and to use the results to learn from our peer utilities and to be even better going forward. Thanks again for inviting me today.

Jason Price: 
Absolutely. Thank you again for joining us. Sharon, I want to start with you to see if you can provide us with a big picture. What is the SEPA Utility Transformation Challenge? Why did SEPA see a need to launch this effort? And what is the goal?

Sharon Allan: 
Hey, thanks, Jason. As Debra said, transformation has been something that never stops. I know 30 plus years ago, people say, "Well, gosh, you were talking about transformation then." But it's not the same transformation that we face in our sector today. As utilities, and all of us in the industry, look to address climate change, the need for greater resiliency, evolving customer needs, evolving business models and policies, changes among us. We always are in this constant transformation, adjusting to what the factors are around us. But the big picture of what's going on and what drove us, if you look at... 79% of customer counts today are served by an individual utility with a carbon reduction target or a utility-owned parent company with a carbon reduction target. 72% of those have a 100% carbon reduction target.

Sharon Allan: 
This climate awareness and us, as a nation and as citizens, and utilities, and stakeholders are coming together on what do we need to do to address climate. SEPA has long conducted a number of snapshots and reports for industry. In the past, we've done things on solar, storage, demand-side management. We took a step back and we said, "Gosh, the transition that is amongst us right now, it's really important that we not focus on merely technology because this is much bigger than technology."

Sharon Allan: 
What we did is we set a goal to measure where utility was on their journey to clean and modern from an objective data-supported framework. What we assessed is we assessed utilities along four dimensions of transformation, that is, clean energy resources, corporate leadership, modern grid enablement, and aligned actions and engagement. But we thought it was important to distinguish in our Utility Transformation Challenge is that this is not just about clean generation. It is about a bunch of different things in terms of strategy, the change management, the capital that needs to be invested in the grid to make ready for cleaner generations in some regions of the US.

Sharon Allan: 
We took a holistic approach to looking at it. Why we did this is we thought it would help utilities to leverage our Utility Transformation Challenge and accelerate their transition. How do we think this would help accelerate the transition? We think, by collecting the information as a trusted partner, that the insights that we drove from it could enable us to share best practices, exemplary activities, and gaps that still needed to be addressed.

Sharon Allan: 
It would also become a voice for progress to be shared in the industry, as often, there's so much chatter and noise, as I'm sure everyone has experienced. That sometimes drowns out key progress. The Utility Transformation Challenge is a key initiative at SEPA, is something we plan to do every year. I'm delighted today to be able to share one of the top leaders in our ranking, Seattle City Light, with Debra, as she'll go through and talk about some of the interesting things later on in this conversation that they're doing.

Jason Price: 
Terrific. No doubt, this is an ambitious challenge. Over to you, Debra. As you listen to Sharon discuss how she and her team at SEPA recognized the utilities, who have made the most progress in the areas she describes, tell us what parts of the Seattle City Lights comprehensive efforts come to mind.

Debra Smith: 
First of all, I don't know when, of course, this podcast will be broadcast or when folks will listen. But this is a really critical week for us: for us, as a nation, as a world. Our leaders are coming together this Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN Climate Change Conference of the parties, or COP 26. What we know is that we have to keep the urgency up on confronting climate change. We just passed the 30th anniversary of the first IPCC climate change report. I think what's true is: the world is on fire. We must literally work to put it out between wildfires, heat events where none had occurred before, and just endless drought in the West. It is a crazy time.

Debra Smith: 
I have reflected on the fact that transformation is a process or a journey, not a destination. I think many of us learned more about the importance of transforming and the continuous nature of it this last 19 months as we've navigated COVID and things that have continually changed.

Debra Smith: 
One of the first things that we did, when our state... in Washington state, when the governor asked us to stay home in March of 2020, was we put together a group of some of our smartest and brightest folks. We said, "Hey, take six weeks. Use contemporary agile project management approaches. Let's see how much work you can do to prepare for what... At that point, we thought we would have infrastructure funding by the end of the summer of 2020. Isn't that funny now, as we think about that today, where we are still struggling to make that so? But what we knew is that if we put some thought in ahead to how we could use this opportunity to fuel our transformation as a utility and as a city, that there would be considerable value. In fact, that's what we did. We called it Utility Next 2.0.

Debra Smith: 
We put together a portfolio of 18/19 projects. Some of them are things like distribution automation, but we've got hydro stuff. We're working with the port, with the Northwest Seaport Alliance, with the cruise ship industry. We're working with our rural metro transit authority. We're working with lots of partners. When I think about the transformative work that we've done and the priority that we've placed on it, there's a few words that always come to mind. That's partnership, collaboration, and meeting community where we are. As we go into, I know there will be funding soon. We have already been successful in attracting funding at a state level and through DOE because we developed a clear plan. That plan is part of our grid modernization roadmap, which will prepare us for the future and prepare the city of Seattle to serve customers equitably, fairly, and affordably.

Debra Smith: 
I think when we boil it all down, and we think about reliability and resilience, those are the primary components of that. Being recognized by SEPA and having the opportunity to really spend some time talking and thinking about the work we've done and what are the next steps has really been important. I know, for me, it has been a huge opportunity, if you will, to really think about what's next and how we build on the success that we've had to date. I think that's really the most critical piece because that's the part that acknowledges the neverending-ness of transformation because, again, we build on what we've learned in the past, both as individuals, as a utility, and as a society.

Jason Price: 
Sharon, given Debra's response, how do you see the other participating utilities respond to this challenge?

Sharon Allan: 
One of the things, as I was listening to Debra, that comes to my mind quickly is that the one thing that Debra's done at her utility... And I can attest just having talked to different executives on her team. She not only, with her team... because it takes a team to make this happen. Not only are they charting a strategy, but they're changing a culture within their own utility. That is just as important to arrive at the end goal. There is this cultural transformation that goes on. The one thing that I see that Debra's done well with her leadership team is they all are embracing the change. They all are working together in terms of collaborating and partnering and have a listening ear to their community.

Sharon Allan: 
I'd say, across the entire US, that is not the case. The starting point is different in every utility in terms of leadership culture. What is their starting point in terms of their portfolio of clean generation? Not everyone is starting from such a clean portfolio that Seattle City Light has. What are the investments in the grid that they need to be able to transform? What is their level of engagement and comfort of taking input from outside stakeholders and truly embracing that input? That is a cultural change to be able to process input from your customers. The path is different across the US, depending on where one's starting point is.

Sharon Allan: 
For some utilities, the focus may need to be a little bit stronger in terms of how they lean in to listening more to their communities in creating those partnerships and those relationships with community and local corporates. It could be that someone is starting from a portfolio that isn't very clean. There's a lot of transition to transition the existing generation fleet to something that has much less... more carbon-free, carbon-neutral. That makes every journey a little bit different. But the steps that one takes towards transformation, the process is very similar that every leader goes through to address that.

Sharon Allan: 
We also see a difference between investor-owned utilities, public power utilities, and electric co-operatives because they have different priorities. They have different business models. They have different processes. The way they interact with stakeholders is different depending on where you are as a utility and their customer obligations and operating constraints.

Sharon Allan: 
Having said all that, I do acknowledge that we did see, from our 2021 leaderboard, we didn't go in with any clear set of outcomes of how many IOUs, cooperatives, public power people would make the leaderboard. We let our scoring and our analysis facts speak the true output. What we saw in our leaderboard is we had five investor-owned utilities and five public power that filled the charts of the top 10.

Sharon Allan: 
I would be remiss, since Debra was talking about her team and many of the things that they have done as a company, if I didn't give an extra little shout out to someone on Debra's team: Emeka Anyanwu, who we awarded at SEPA as our 2021 Individual Power Player of the Year for his efforts at Seattle City Light of evolving the utility to equitably meet customer and community needs and expectations in the new energy marketplace, and for his implementation of Transportation Electrification Strategic Investment Plan, the development of City Light's long-term Grid Modernization Roadmap, the creation of the portfolio of the ambitious job-creating projects to leverage Federal stimulus funds, and Seattle City Light's successful entry into the Energy Imbalance Market. You can see that the leadership of Debra flowing down and empowering her team to act in this transition. It is very important because no one person... A leader can't do it all, and so part of a leader is equipping their team. It's exciting to see the people under her leadership doing their part to help in the transformation.

Matt Chester: 
This is the podcast producer, Matt Chester, cutting in here. Sharon gave a great answer here that involves the important topic of equity and utility planning. That's a topic we want to give a sharp focus on for both Sharon and Debra to address. That topic, as well as transforming the utility workforce in the future, are both topics that we dove head-first into with our esteemed guests, so much so that our conversation ran long. We didn't expect, but we're delighted, that this podcast ended up turning into a two-parter.

Matt Chester: 
Keep an eye on your podcast feed in the coming days for part two of this conversation, where Debra and Sharon will explore those equity and workforce topics, as well as participate in our fan-favorite lightning round. In the meantime, be sure to plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at EnergyCentral.com. We'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for our next episode! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:


Thanks once again to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

Discussions
Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.

No discussions yet. Start a discussion below.

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »