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Episode #76: 'Preparing for the EV Shift from a Utility Perspective' with Lauren Youngdahl Snyder, VP of Customer Experience at Consumers Energy [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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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...

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  • Apr 5, 2022
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The shift to adopt electric vehicles (EVs) is not only the most comprehensive transportation system evolution to date, but it is also setting up the electric power industry for its most fundamental disruption in its history. The amount of sheer new energy demand that accompanies a complete shift towards EVs has not been seen since the advent of air conditioning, but the domino effect of impacts are also never ending: new opportunities for flexible demand, installation of necessary equipment and infrastructure, and a true rethinking of the relationship between utility and customer.

Rather than see this shift as a hurdle to overcome, Consumers Energy in Michigan has taken it on as a challenge to be able to help its customers in new and creative ways. This major utility has pledged to power one million EVs by the end of the decade, and the pride felt in the role Michigan has always played as the heart of the U.S. auto industry has meant that this transition to EVs is personal. The passion and excitement for this shift, however, does not mean that the path from here to there is clear and straightforward, and some of the challenges that will come have likely not even yet been identified. But that doesn't stop Lauren Youngdahl Snyder, Vice President of Customer Experience at Consumers Energy, from taking a leading role in bringing the utility and its customers into the EV future. Lauren joins podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to provide lessons already learned along the way and an outlook for what the pathway is from here to 2030 to support one million EVs on the Michigan roads.
 

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast. This is the show that brings leading minds to discuss the latest challenges and trends transforming and modernizing the energy systems and the utility industry of the future. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor for today's show. Now, let's talk energy. I'm your host, Jason Price, Energy Central podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. With me as always from Orlando, Florida, is Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, today we're looking at the role of the utility and the electric vehicle transformation. In particular, we are going up to the state of Michigan, home of America's auto industry, to hear what Consumers Energy, a major power producer and distributor of energy, is doing to prepare the grid for this transformation. What is interesting is that Consumers has pledged to support 1 million EVs on the road by the end of the decade. Matt, would you like to set the stage for us on the size of this market?

Matt Chester:
Happy to, Jason. While the Michigan statewide goal is to have 2 million EVs on the road by 2030, within their service area, Consumers Energy has about three to four million cars. And as you stated, they're pledging to power 1 million EVs by the end of the decade. Roughly, that translates to 120,000 EVs to be sold each year for eight years straight within their service area. That's about 340 cars per day across the state. We take pause at these daunting numbers, right.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, those are big numbers. While demand grows, all these vehicles need to be powered. The big utilities in Michigan, that's Consumers Energy and DTE, must meet much of this demand. We're lucky to have with us today an insider at Consumers Energy leading the EV transformation. She has helped mastermind the EV programs for customers in the last couple of years, providing rebates for charges at homes, businesses and along busy roads, plus providing hands on service for businesses that plan to electrify their vehicle fleets. All of this helps meet the ambitious goal of powering 1 million EVs by end of the decade. With us from Consumers Energy, it's Lauren Youngdahl Snyder, vice president of customer experience.

Jason Price: 
Youngdahl Snyder's family actually has deep ties to Consumers Energy. Her grandfather was an executive vice president for the company and given her inherent historical perspective, she knows EVs are a perfect example of Consumer Energy's shift from a service provider to a trusted partner, as customers make energy decisions to manage their cost and protect the planet. We're eager to dig into what Consumers Energy is doing to prepare for the shift, including what other utilities across the country can learn from these efforts. Let's bring her in. Lauren Youngdahl Snyder, welcome to today's episode of Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Hi Jason, I'm so glad to be here with you today.

Jason Price: 
As are we. Lauren, tell us some more about your role at Consumers Energy and how has the customer changed over time?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
My role at Consumers Energy is the vice president of customer experience. I have responsibility for all of our customer programs. Think energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles, which is the topic for today, and also including building new capabilities so that we can go to market with these customer programs, including marketing, experience, design, sales. Yes, we are building sales capability and economic development. My team is really hyper focused on how we can engage with customers so that we ultimately achieve our clean energy aspirations. We have put bold ambitions out there, not only with EVs but within our whole clean energy programs. We intend to be coal free net zero by 2025, and about 22% of that plan calls for customers to participate in our programs. And so my team is on a mission to ensure that we get customers enrolled and excited about being on this clean energy transformation.

Jason Price: 
As the customer continues to evolve, we now have the electric vehicle. How do you envision the overall customer experience evolving, given EVs, and what are you doing to prepare for this?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
EVs is a perfect opportunity for us to help the customer really connect to this whole clean energy transformation that we're embarking on. Imagine this, you purchase your electric vehicle. And the next phone call that you make is to Consumers Energy, and we help you get everything set up. It's a seamless one stop shop type of service, where we help you select the right charger. We help you get that charger installed. We rebate that charger for you so that it's essentially not even that much cost for you. You don't have to hit your hot pocketbook. We get you on the right rate, and then we help you to other program offerings that can help really step you into creating a smart home. I envision Consumers Energy really helping be an accelerant to you wanting to purchase an electric vehicle, and helping ensure that when you do purchase an electric vehicle, it's a really seamless experience.

Jason Price: 
Sounds like it's nicely evolving. Consumers Energy has created a couple of programs to help speed up the EV adoption. Can you share for us some of these that are already in the market for your customers, and what impact do you think you're having when it comes to electric vehicles across the state?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
You bet. Electric vehicles is not new territory for us. We have been working on program offerings and have had program offerings for the last at least three years. And so I want to talk to you about two existing programs that we have. One is called PowerMIDrive and the other is called PowerMIFleet. PowerMIDrive is our first program, it launched in 2018 and provides rebates for home charging and public chargers. Imagine this, you are one of the early adopters and you've got your EV and you've installed your charger. We will help you offset much of that cost of the charger through our rebates. And to date, we've awarded over 1500 rebates. And it's not just residential right, public chargers too. Think about the state of Michigan, we worked really closely with Michigan State University and the state, to really try and understand where across our territory we would expect to see adoption happen faster than other parts and where in the corridors, the highway corridors, we would want to have the proper infrastructure ready to support our customers traveling across the state.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And so we've been very deliberate about ensuring that we have level two chargers and DC fast chargers set up in those locations so that today, if you are in the state of Michigan, you can drive from Bronson, Michigan ... If you had your hand up right, typical Michigander, hand up ... That's a very Southern part of our state, all the way up to Mackinaw City, which is at the very Northern tip. You can travel knowing that there are charging stations along the way that we have made sure are there, so that you can confidently hit the road and not worry about range anxiety. That's power my drive.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
PowerMIFleet launched last year, and this is all around helping ensure that businesses who have fleets ... And it could be you've got two delivery vans or you've got a whole host of vehicles, really help helping them determine what and how to electrify, in addition to helping provide rebates for those charging stations. And this program is going gangbusters. We anticipated having around maybe 25 companies raise their hand and say, "We want to work with you to help understand."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Essentially, we're offering a concierge service. We surpassed that three weeks into the program, and we have a wait list now of up to 50 different companies, and it's growing every day. And so we always say, "Are EVs going to come to real fruition? Is the time now?"

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
I think this is another signpost that tells us confidently that, "Oh, yeah. It's not if, it's when."

Jason Price: 
It's great to learn about the accelerated adoption going on across the state. Lauren, whenever we have guests on, we always ask the question about the equitable aspects of the programs that are being unfolded. Can you share with us how are these programs being equitable for people across the state?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
You bet, this is very top of mind for us. And this is always a key lens that we look through when we're developing our program offerings, whether it's in EVs or any offering that we have to our customers. I would say the biggest equity role with EVs is encouraging people to charge when there's extra energy on the grid, that is the off peak hours at night or on the weekends. When people charge off peak, it adds usage to the grid without requiring big cost investments because the extra energy is already available. That means benefits without cost, which puts downward pressure on every utility customer's bill, whether they own an EV or not. And I think that's a really important message that everyone needs to hear, is that this really is an opportunity to really lower downward pressure on ... Or put downward pressure on utility bills, the bill that you get. It's not just if you own an EV or the beneficiary of the rates, it collectively helps all of our customers.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
More directly, we are working to ensure that our public chargers are spread out geographically across our territory. It's not just a first come first serve, we want to make sure that anyone has access to a public charger if they need it. And our fleet program supports public transit fleets, so think city buses, think smaller transport vehicles, think school buses, and this way all customers can benefit from vehicle electrification, even if they don't personally own an EV. And really, looking ahead, we're eager to do more to promote equity. For example, we're looking into how we can do this but that would provide overnight charging at charging centers in public areas for people who aren't able to charge at home. It's definitely top of mind for us. I think we've made some good strides to date but there's a lot more work to do and we're excited to crack that nut so everyone can see the value and feels a part of this transition into electric vehicles.

Jason Price: 
Yes, this is certainly a challenge across the country. Tell us now, how are these programs progressing? And in general, what can be done? And what can Governor Whitmer and the regulators in your state do more or less of to help hasten what you feel is necessary?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
I think that collectively as a state, we're doing all the right things. I think the fact that we have a new goal for the state, is a great signal to our residents and to the nation that we are taking this adoption of EVs and ensuring acceleration of EVs very seriously. And I think the regulators too, the fact that this is not new territory right, we have had program offerings and we're looking to evolve those. And our commission has been very supportive of that. I think we're doing all the right things. And what I really appreciate, is this desire to be bold in this space. We are the auto capital of the world after all right, let's prove it. And when we came to our senior leadership team last year and made the case for why we thought 1 million vehicles was the right ambition, it was hands down like, "Go forth and figure it out."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And I think it would've been easy for us to come and say, "We think that by 2030, based on all the data, we could see 300,000 cars on the road, right."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
That's very palatable, like, "Okay. Yeah, sure. Get it."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
But with all the sign posts that have been coming through with all of the automakers having big ambitions and with policy changes coming and with even battery technology ... If you think about it, the new Tesla battery pack takes seven minutes to charge. That is way less time it takes me to go fill up my gas tank, right. And it's only going to get faster, right. I think that all of these signposts and all the headlines that hit even just last year, were pretty telling to say that we're going to see adoption come faster than we could have ever imagined. And I think for our company to be bold and say, "We'll do all that we can to accelerate the adoption of 1 million in our service territory."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder::
... really is a great forcing function for us to think about where in the value chain of EVs can Consumers Energy, your utility, play? We do not want to be the constraint. And so thinking of it through that approach of what has to be true to get a million, is really forcing us to think about different program offerings. This whole life idea of what I think good looks like in the future of being your one stop shop resource, I don't know if we would've thought of that if we weren't pushing ourselves to be really bold in this space. I think that our governor and our regulators and the key stakeholders, the autos here at Michigan, we are really coming together in a collaborative way to make this EV adoption something that we'll look back on and say, "Look at all the goodness that came from that."

Jason Price: 
You mentioned constraints, I want to pull all that thread a little bit. One of the big concerns that we always are being asked or being questioning about the grid itself, is the grid ready for all that? This is a question that really applies especially to fleet owners in terms of making that commitment and that investment. How do you address this incredibly important question that fleet customers have?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Yeah. This is a question that comes up often, and I think if all 1 million vehicles showed up on the grid to date, yes, we would have a problem, but that's not reality and that wouldn't happen. And so we know that this will be a phased approach, and by learning and updating our models in real time, which is what we do as a business, we will be able to identify any potential hot spots and require upgrades so that we can be proactive and not be the bottleneck in this transition. That's another key thing, we will not be the constraint. And that's just exactly what the grid was built to do, forecast and respond to energy demand appropriately. And we did it. I like to always think back, air conditioning build out in the 60s and 70s, we did it then and we're ready to do it again with EVs. We're experts in this space of ensuring that we've got proper infrastructure ready to support our customers.

Jason Price: 
That's interesting, the parallel to air conditioners. I imagine the answer is no, you didn't have a demand charge or a time of use rate for air conditioners, but are you deploying some model for electric vehicles?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
We are. One of the things great about electric vehicles is that we offer incentives for the rate that you're on to charge appropriately or to help charge at times that help us from a load perspective. We have two options in place. One is our nighttime savers rate, this has three time periods. Think on peak off/peak and super off peak, which is the middle of the night and that's when we have the cheapest energy. And for people on this rate, it's a way to motivate them to charge when the grid is least used, which is a win. We also have launched our Bring Your Own Charger program last year, which is a part of the PowerMIDrive program that I spoke about earlier. And for that program, you can enroll in whatever charger you want. And for every month you charge off peak, we'll put a credit on your bill to the tune of $10 each month.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And the other thing to note is that cars and sometimes chargers, make this really easy to do. You can set it up so that your car doesn't start to charge until a certain time. Or even for more sophisticated schedules. That's what I have, I drive an electric vehicle and that's exactly what I do. My car knows when to charge. I take advantage of the super off peak rate. That's how we're thinking about this.

Jason Price: 
I want to go back to your role. You are basically the face of the company to the customer. And in that sense, how has your role changed in interacting with customers? And do you see this changing your relationship even further and the perception of the customer to its utility? And do you think that they'll have a deeper connection to Consumers Energy with this type of relationship changing? Could you talk about that a little bit?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Yeah, of course. And to answer the last question there, yes, I do. I do believe this will deepen the relationship that we have with customers and really showcase the value that the utility bring. I've been with Consumers Energy my entire career, which will be 18 years here coming up this summer, which is just crazy. It's flown by. And I can remember the early days in my career where we called customers rate payers, they were rate payers, and not top of mind, not key in how we thought or made decisions. They were rate payers. I've watched this change in the way that Consumers Energy thinks about customers. And through my whole career, I've had several different roles, which has given me great perspective of the company and how we do what we do but the common theme has always been customer. And I will say the minute that we decided to embark on this clean energy transformation, we made a decision to really focus it on customers. Customers have become an imperative key stakeholder in making sure that we can deliver on those large aspirations of closing out all of our coal fleet, right.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And the reason why is, if customers aren't participating in programs and aren't a part of this journey, we can't be successful in those aspirations. And we know customers want a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. It's a collective best interest. And so I would say this, today ... Think about it, do think about your utility? Probably not. I don't. As a customer myself, I do not really think about my utility. And when I do think about my utility, it's because there's an issue, right. The power is out, the bill is wrong, the crews were in my front yard and they messed up my yard, right. It's a very defect driven experience. And so what Consumers Energy and my team and I are trying to do, is change that narrative of, think of us. Number one, start thinking of us. And when you do think of us, you have had tremendously great experiences, right. We have delighted you.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Yes, we use the word delight and joy, through these key touch points with the company, outage billing, move in, move out, field experiences, so that you really have a strong degree of trust and are willing to participate in programs that are inside your home, right. To date, Consumers Energy and all utilities, are to the pull or to the meter, right. And so now we're asking to come into the home so that we can offer you energy efficient solutions. Yes, we want you to use less of our product. That's how we're going to ultimately attain these aspirations of a clean energy net zero, right. Allow us to put a smart thermostat inside your home to send signals during those peak summer days when everyone's firing up their air conditioning units and we need to dial them down to ensure that we're levelizing the load. And to this point, allow us to come into your garage or into your workplace to help ensure that you've got what you need, the proper infrastructure in place and the proper rates, so that you can feel really confident driving that electric vehicle.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And so I have watched our company go from thinking of customers as rate payers, to really thinking about it through the triple bottom line, people, planet and prosperity. And knowing that we have to really serve customers well in their core experiences, so that they will engage with us in more of a partnership, participating in programs way, so that collectively we can have a more sustainable energy future.

Jason Price: 
Thank you, Lauren. Let's look to the future. What's around the corner? What are you doing and what are you thinking about Consumers Energy for your customers, whether it's the EV driver or your customers in general?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Oh, geez. Where do I begin? All right. For EVs in particular, I would say we want to be that partner of the home, right. We want to help support workplace and campus charging. We want to be able to partner with OEMs and help accelerate getting more EVs in homes and at workplaces. How can we partner together at the point of sale, right? What about school buses? That's a big play too, especially if you think about equity. And then other public transport. And so I want to have a plan for that. And commercial and duty, continuing to accelerate that. And then of course, our public charging infrastructure expansion. Those are the key things on our mind of the areas that we feel we can add the most value from an EV standpoint. The other piece I would say is around renewables, renewables is here and it's coming and we offer several different programs.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
For residential customers, we have what we call our solar gardens program, which is community solar. You can sign up for certain blocks of energy and you receive a credit for the energy generated. And it's hugely successful, we have tremendous demand from that. To date, we've got around 96% subscribed from residential customers. We also have a low income play that went live in June of 2021. And it really was designed as a means for income qualified customers within our territory to participate in community solar at no cost to them. And that's where we work with nonprofit agencies to help offset those costs.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And then where we're seeing the greatest demand is coming from large CNI customers. And so we have a program offering today that ... Again, demand is outpacing supply. It's our large customer renewable program. And this allows customers to subscribe to wind or solar facilities, and they get a credit for the energy and capacity value of the resource. We've got wind, we've got solar, and we have a lot of customers who are very interested in being a part of that. We're thinking through too like, "What else has to be true? What other offerings from residential and CNI perspective, do we need to make sure we have?"

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Because we want to be the first person, first company you think of when you think about wanting renewables, right. We want to be your trusted advisor to do that and the first place you go to. And so we're working to ensure we've got offerings to meet your needs in that space. Energy efficiency is also really important to us, we've been in that business for over 13 years and we continue ... That's from doing home energy assessments, to receiving home energy reports that tell you how you're doing and different ways to save, that's LED light bulbs. And we're really starting to lean more into gas energy efficiency too, given our ambitions on the gas side of our business. How do we again, ensure that we're offering programs such as furnace programs, window ceiling, boiler cleanups, smart thermostats et cetera, to ensure that customers are using less energy? Because that's the biggest way to make a difference when we talk about this clean energy transformation, is to use less energy.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And then the next piece is to step into this smart thermostat offering that we have, that's also been a great success as well, where we've partnered with many of the smart thermostat manufacturers and are able to dial down your thermostat during peak events, peak hot summer days. Your incentive to do it, you don't notice the difference now that we're all working from home. And I participated in as many programs as I possibly can, to make sure I'm living the customer experience. And you do not notice a difference in the temperature of your home. And so things like that, things that are very easy for customers to step into, because we hear from them that they want to be a part of this transition. How do we make sure that it's easy for them to step into these program and be a part of this clean energy transformations?

Jason Price: 
That sounds exciting. And I can hear the passion in what you're describing. And certainly, Consumers Energy is very much a mission driven company. We did have your CEO, Garrick Rochow, and he shared with us the mission driven mantra of Consumers Energy. It's definitely coming out even in what you're describing to us. Lauren, now is the time where we get to throw you a handful of questions. We call this the lightning round, it's an opportunity for our audience to get a peek into who you are. And I think they got a good taste of that just hearing the work you're doing. I'm going to ask you a series of questions, and each one calls for either one word or phrase. Are you ready?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Okay, I'm ready.

Jason Price: 
All right. What's your go-to snack food?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Oh, my God. I love those Dot's Pretzels. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Jason Price: 
I do.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Dot's Pretzels. Oh, I can eat those for days.

Jason Price: 
Particularly the honey mustard one.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Oh, I've not tried that.

Jason Price: 
Okay. Dream vacation spot.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
My family and I love to ski, and our favorite place is Colorado. Any place in Colorado to ski, that's my dream vacation spot.

Jason Price: 
Go Blue or go Green.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Go Green all day. I've got three degrees from Michigan State and I played on the golf team, so I have an extra special affinity to the university.

Jason Price: 
There you go. Who were your role models growing up?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Well, I love that you mentioned it earlier. My grandfather, a big role model in my life. I never in a million years thought that I would end up working at the same company that he did. Our paths clearly did not cross. He retired well before I joined the company, and I remember him giving me advice of, "It's a good company. It's a really good company."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
And I think I just admired his commitment to his family and to his community and to his company. And we would always leave the conversations that we had of him saying, "Now, you take care of our company."

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
My grandfather.

Jason Price: 
And what are you most optimistic about?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
I am most optimistic about where Consumers Energy is headed, and the utility industry, quite frankly. We are really at a pivot point offering this next stage of what the energy industry looks like. Who would've thought we would be talking about retiring coal fleets and moving to all sustainable resources? I can promise you in the conversations with my grandfather, it was not in their purview, right. And we're doing it for all the right reasons. This play of people, planet prosperity, and really creating a clean future for generations to come is really exciting. And then personally, two weeks from today, I will be having my fourth child, a baby boy. I'm just so excited about that just can't wait to meet this little guy and become a family of six.

Jason Price: 
Wow, congratulations. I'm impressed by the energy that you have. All right. A nice job with the lightning round. We want to give you the final word. What key lessons can you hope to instill on the utility audience listening today? What would you like them to take away from this conversation?

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
There is incredible energy and empowerment found in being bold. And when you put your stake out there for something that seems just, "You got to be kidding, a million vehicles in the service territory, and before the end of the decade, how in the world are we going to get there?"

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder:
Just the forcing function that that creates for you and your team to think of new and different ways to achieve a breakthrough outcome, it's going to push you into areas that I promise you you wouldn't have pushed yourself into in the absence of that. And I also think it's important that the utility audience knows just how important this clean energy transformation is for Consumers Energy. It's our top priority and we're on a mission to lead the charge there.

Jason Price: 
Terrific Lauren, really appreciate your thoughts and sharing with us today. No doubt this is an area that Energy Central and the podcast audience will continue to focus on. Hopefully, we can keep you engaging on this. And certainly, we'd love to have you back some time in the future. But for now, thanks so much for your insight. And we look forward to you and our community members keeping these conversations going at energycentral.com.

Lauren Youngdahl Snyder: 
Thank you so much. It was great to be with you today.

Jason Price: 
For sure. You can always reach Lauren through the Energy Central platform, where she welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsor that made today's episode possible. Thanks 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 analytics and cybersecurity. And once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. And we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power perspectives Podcast.

 


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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.

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