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Episode #81: ‘Utilities Embracing the R&D Role for the Future' with King Look, Director of R&D at Con Edison [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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Ask anyone across the utility sector and they'll likely agree: today is the most exciting it's ever been work in the power industry. Between rapid technological advancement, the newfound availability of investment funds for grid and program upgrades, and the hyperfocus on meeting the challenges of clean and reliable energy, utility companies today are more dynamic than ever before. With this fast-paced environment comes the need for research and development to identify the best opportunities and integrate the most successful processes. For decades, the utility industry was a bit stagnant or even stale, but today the R&D opportunities are only limited by our collective imagination.

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To highlight just how critical the modern focus on utility R&D is, this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast welcomes a guest who is guiding that discovery and advancement journey at one of the nation's most well respected utilities. Our guest today is King Look, the Director of R&D at Con Edison. King joins the podcast booth to share with podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester what he sees as the top priorities in a successful R&D program as well as preview some of the landscape changing technologies and programs he and his team at Con Edison are currently working to bring to the field.

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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 another episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, the podcast that brings in leading minds to discuss the latest challenges and trends transforming and modernizing the energy systems and the utility industry of the future. A quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm 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.

Jason Price: 
We do not often view our utilities as a hotbed for innovation and entrepreneurialism, but that is exactly part of the transformation going on in our energy system, given climate change and our global imperative to clean energy and energy security. As a result, investment into new opportunities and technologies is advancing at record pace. Matt, set the stage for our listeners on what all this means for the utilities.

Matt Chester: 
Absolutely, Jason. Investment for utilities has become more important than ever in recent years, as you noted, with the areas of funding stretching across the entire enterprise. In years past, it wouldn't have been odd for a US utilities to max out their R&D spending at well less than 1% of their revenue, often a small fraction of that, but today with everything from transmission upgrades to new digital technologies to the exciting build-out of clean energy and energy storage technologies, R&D is regularly becoming a line item for utilities to watch.

Matt Chester: 
Not only does such spending set power companies to perform well for the evolving energy landscape, but they also bring value back to their customers, new programs, opportunities for distributed energy, preparing for the EV future, and more. So I think it's pretty safe to say that there's never been a more exciting time to be in the R&D space for the power sector.

Jason Price: 
No doubt we're in a period of rapid investment in new technologies and the R&D that drives that activity. While funds are more available than they have been previously for these activities, they are by no means limitless. That means focusing R&D efforts in the right areas toward the technologies with the greatest chance for success, however that may be defined, is critical.

Jason Price: 
We want to learn more about how utilities are prioritizing their R&D efforts. To do so, I think we have with us today one of the best possible speakers on that topic. Joining us on this episode is King Look of Con Edison. King has spent an impressive career with Con Edison, starting as an intern back in the '80s before working his way up through the ranks to his current role of director of research and development. King, we're thrilled to welcome you to today's episode of Power Perspectives™ Podcast.

King Look: 
Oh, thanks, Jason, for that introduction. I have had many position at Con Edison, and never would I have thought when I started back in 1983 utilities would one day be at the epicenter of our nation's seismic shift to a clean energy future. To get to that future, R&D will need to pave the way for the development of tomorrow's technologies. This is why I'm so excited about R&D, and I'm thrilled to be part of it and creating our clean energy future.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, King. We're thrilled to have you on. King, you're one of a few that have already joined the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast with Con Edison. We've been blessed to have Nelson Yip, director in strategy and planning, and Mike Murphy, general manager in the CX group, join us on the podcast as well. So we're thrilled to have you on, joining us today, and sharing your wisdom and insight.

Jason Price: 
Set the stage for our Energy Central audience on the R&D office. When was it established? How is it funded? And describe the general operations of the office on how and where it directs its attention.

King Look: 
The R&D Department at Con Edison was established in 1969, which coincidentally was the year when the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed in the moon. We are funded by revenues we collect from our electric, gas, and steam customers. At Con Edison, the R&D Department is part of a shared services organization, supporting the operating organization and businesses. In R&D, we work with our internal customers to find out their most difficult challenges.

King Look: 
To do this, we rely on a vast network of external collaborators to help develop these solutions. Our external collaborators include industry research groups, like Electric Power Research Institute or EPRI and the Gas Technology Institute or GTI. We also collaborate with universities, national laboratories, and directly with other utilities.

King Look: 
The focus of the R&D Department is aligned with our company's clean energy vision and core priorities of ensuring safety to our employees and the general public, enhancing operation excellence of our business and everything we do, and ensuring a positive customer experience by partnering with our internal customers to find out their most pressing challenges.

Jason Price: 
Help us understand a little bit more about the innovation and its interaction with the marketplace or are these more the work you do around internal initiatives?

King Look: 
We do a mix of both. In the innovation marketplace, we participate actively in EPRI's Incubatenergy Challenges every year since it started four years ago. Through these challenges, we engage startup companies to demonstrate and evaluate their innovative technology. An example of this is the demonstration and evaluation of a hot water heat pump that recovers the heat in the wastewater discharged to the sewers.

King Look: 
We'll also do internal initiatives, where we would engage a vendor or contractor to develop new technologies for us. For example, we work with vendors to develop a borescope that can do inspections of underground structures without having to lift and move the manhole cover. There are multiple advantages to this. It improves the safety of the employee who's doing the inspection, and it significantly reduces the time to do the inspection.

Jason Price: 
All right. Is the objective to make these commercially available in the marketplace or what is the metric for success?

King Look: 
Our primary objective is always driven by our clean energy vision and commitment to our core priorities of safety, operation excellence, and enhancing the customer experience. If making our innovation commercially available helps to drive down the cost that's required, we will do so.

King Look: 
We also have other metrics of success. One metric is the number of patents we have, and we currently have 100 patents. Last year alone, we were awarded five patents, including one that is jointly owned with the Palo Alto Research Center on optical monitoring to detect corrosion of power grid components.

King Look: 
Another metric of success is external award. For example, we were the recipient of three Electric Power Research Institute Technology Transfer Award. And the truest metric of success, I would say, is the adoption of the R&D developed tools by the operating organization for their everyday use.

Jason Price: 
King, tell us what are your teams working on that you have most excited right now.

King Look: 
We are working on so many exciting things that it would be difficult to name them all. Let me focus on three areas, clean energy, underground cable splicing, and excavation. I'm going to discuss them in reverse order.

King Look: 
Most of Con Edison's energy infrastructure is underground, and sometimes we need to excavate the streets of New York City to get to them for repair. Excavation in New York City requires breaking the street's surface and the rocks underneath. The typical tool you use is a jackhammer, which can be very noisy and can draw complaints from the general public in the work area.

King Look: 
We are currently working on a groundbreaking tool that makes excavation safer, faster, and less noisy. Any noise would be short-lived and only as loud as a vacuum cleaner. It is safer because it can be remotely operated. The technology underpinning this tool is electrohydraulic fracturing or EHF, which uses plasma energy to break rocks exposed during construction activities. We are currently field-testing a prototype, and we'll be making adjustments based on the feedback we get from the field test.

King Look: 
The next area of innovation I'd like to discuss is underground cable splicing. The vision here is that if the medical community can do robotic-assisted surgeries, why can't we in the utility industry have a robotic-assisted tool, like a splicer. It can remotely operate it safely away from the energy source. The benefits of this tool include faster feeder restoration, less employee time in enclosed spaces to do the splice, the increased safety and productivity, and improved accuracy and repeatability of these splice.

King Look: 
We have developed a prototype to do large end cap, and we'll be continuing to improve the design including making it wider and smaller, so it is easier to fit through a manhole. We're also about to begin a new initiative to develop an underground splicing machine that can do one-way splices.

King Look: 
The last area of innovation I'd like to discuss is clean energy technologies. We are targeting a $100 million in R&D investments by 2030 to facilitate the clean energy future. We are developing the country's first fully electric bucket truck. The truck will be capable of operating an entire eight-hour shift, have 130 miles range capability before requiring a recharge, and full battery recharge in eight hours. We're also planning to develop other electric utility trucks, a delivery step van, a cable truck, and a flush truck.

King Look: 
We're also looking to introduce new heat pump technology into our service area. This first-of-a-kind heat pump water heater recover waste heat from a building where it's discharged to the sewer. The units run a cooling capability for some thing's domestic hot water production and air conditioning. We are currently identifying location in New York City to demonstrate and power this technology. Markets considered for demonstration are high demand for hot water, such as laundromats and hotels.

King Look: 
We're also participating in the industry-wide Low-Carbon Resource Initiative or LCRI, joining the body Electric Power Research Institute and Gas Technology Institute. These initiative seeks to accelerate and demonstrate the most promising new low-carbon resource options and technologies to enable economy-wide decarbonization. The LCRI research portfolio currently sits over 60 projects in development, all launched since August 2021. For example, R&D on water electrolysis for hydrogen production, evaluation on the conditions from hydrogen combustion, hydrogen natural gas blending, and carbon capture and storage.

King Look: 
The broad reach of the R&D of this initiative is only a reflection of the recognition that much needs to be done to develop the technologies that we need to produce, store, and transport low-carbon resources to address the hard-to-electrify areas in the economy in order to reach carbon neutrality by the middle of this century. It's going to be all hands on deck, and R&D is leading the way to our clean energy future.

Jason Price: 
Wow. Those sound fascinating. Well, I'm sure we could fill an entire episode just on the different projects you're working on. I think one of the biggest takeaways for our audience will be diving into the strategies and philosophies guiding your R&D process at Con Edison. So share with us what are some of the characteristics of new opportunities that catch your eye and lead you to want to invest further in.

King Look: 
For me, I tend towards seeking opportunities that are potentially transformative or first of its kind and are aligned with our clean energy vision and core priorities of safety, operation excellence, and customer experience. While it's tempting to go after transformative opportunities, risks and costs are also major consideration.

King Look: 
There, I would look to see if the opportunity has been evaluate and demonstrated by others in our industry or related industry. If the costs are too high, I would need to see if there are potential partners to share in the cost of development and demonstration and also if there are federal and state grants that could help offset the cost.

Jason Price: 
While the R&D may sound compelling and like a dream job, I'm sure it comes with no shortage of challenges. As director of R&D for such a major utility, what are some of the most prominent difficulties you have to face?

King Look: 
The most prominent challenge has something to do with managing the limited resources we have in the R&D Department and in the company organization that we're partnering with to do these R&D projects. I find that many of the companies' R&D funding to help solve their most pressing need, but there's only so much R&D funding available, only to be exacerbated by new, increasing need for R&D to support the drive to decarbonize our energy systems and economy.

King Look: 
Besides funding, we'll also have limited bandwidth with our people. They can only work on so many projects effectively at a time. There's also the potential for accelerated attrition in the department over next several years as many are now eligible to retire or close to it. Loss of institutional knowledge is a risk, which is why we explore knowledge management systems as a potential mitigation measure.

Jason Price: 
All right. Well, let's dig a little bit further. When looking at different opportunities across various departments at Con Edison, how do you make those tough decisions to allocate funds for R&D optimally?

King Look: 
When we look at opportunities, we always look at those that align with our clean energy vision and core priorities. Other considerations will include technical and commercial readiness and the cost of the R&D investment. Sometimes we get co-funding from the business organization we're partnering with to direct the R&D need. The co-funding helps in our funding decision because it demonstrates the seriousness of the business organization seeking to do the R&D project.

King Look: 
Lastly, getting external funding from sources, like the US Department of Energy, will only improve the attractiveness of the opportunity. In assembling our R&D portfolio with our finite budget, we tested everything just mentioned and only select the projects with high benefit to cost value and high probability of success or with early ramp-off to allow for quick failures to minimize the cost.

Jason Price: 
All right, King. You already alluded to some of this, but one of my questions or final questions here is someone like you, someone involved in R&D... Do you find that the sector is investing as much as it should have given the conditions that we're in? If not, what's holding it up?

King Look: 
For much of existence of our industry, the pace of change was slow, so the need for R&D was not great, well, to what is needed today. Pressure's on industry today to change our grid. As a industry, we are at the center of the whirlwind of changes that will only get more intense, and that's driven by the drive to get to carbon neutrality by the middle of this century. We'll also need to maintain reliable and renewing service, and keeping customer bills affordable.

King Look: 
That is impossible with current technologies, which is why we need to invest more in R&D. We need the help of our regulators to fully recognize it, especially when it comes to allow more to be spent on R&D. Just for comparison, Con Edison's R&D budget is a little more than .1% of operating revenues or about $1,000 per employee. Compare that to the R&D spending of some of the well-known tech giants, like Google, Microsoft, or Intel. They spend about 10% to 20% of their revenues on R&D, and on an employee basis, it's about $100,000 to $200,000 per employee.

King Look: 
I'm not saying we need to spend that much on R&D in our industry, but the disparity highlights what the tech giants already know. To remain competitive and keep pace with changes, there has to be significant R&D commitment and investment.

Jason Price: 
Like I said, we can chat all day about this fascinating topic, but we want to pivot now and learn a bit more about you via our lightning round. We'll ask you a couple questions to let our listeners get to know you a little bit more on a personal level. Your response will just be one word or phrase. Are you ready?

King Look: 
Yes, that sounds fun.

Jason Price: 
All right. What's your favorite holiday?

King Look: 
Christmas.

Jason Price: 
In your opinion, what's the perfect breakfast?

King Look: 
Oatmeal and coffee.

Jason Price: 
What did you want to do for a career when you were growing up?

King Look: 
That's a little tough. Astronaut.

Jason Price: 
What's the best place to which you've ever traveled?

King Look: 
Singapore.

Jason Price: 
And what motivates you?

King Look: 
Predict the future.

Jason Price: 
Terrific. Thanks for peeling back the curtain a bit more for us, King. As a reward for your performance, you win the traditional last word of the podcast. To your peers across the utility industry listening in today's episode, what's the main piece of advice you hope they take away from our conversation?

King Look: 
I'd say if there's a time our industry needs to do more R&D, now's the time. You must be very clear with the objectives when selecting R&D opportunities because it is likely you only have a small and finite R&D budget. It's always better to use someone else's money. Take advantages of external funding opportunities, like those directly offered by the US Department of Energy.

Jason Price: 
I like it. Thanks for that, King. I'm excited to hear what the Energy Central community thinks of the conversation, and I'm sure they'll let us know in the comment section of energycentral.com. Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us today on today's episode.

King Look: 
The pleasure's mine. I want to thank the Energy Central for this opportunity to share our R&D thinking and some of the R&D work we are doing over here at Con Edison.

Jason Price: 
Thank you again for your time and making yourself available for this podcast. You can always reach King through the Energy Central platform, where he welcomes your questions and comments.

Jason Price: 
We also want to give a shout-out of thanks to the podcast sponsors 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 and analytics, and cybersecurity.

Jason Price: 
Once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged on 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. 

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Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on May 23, 2022

Excellent discussion. I worked on a GIS prototype for Con Edison in 1990. It was much different back then. I am really curious about what geospatial technology your team is looking at and how you see the proliferation of data helping both existing and future projects.  

King Look's picture
King Look on Jun 6, 2022

Thank you for your comment and interest in the topic.  You are correct that modern GIS is much different today.  It has expanded from maps to include layers of data generated by connected devices from smart phones, tablets, AMI and asset sensors to name a few.  With up to the minute asset information, it will enable opportunities to have a single real time model of our electric, gas and steam distribution systems.  One example is that it will improve the customer experience - the technology will advance storm responses with real-time outage maps and damage assessment.  Field crews would have visibility of assets as they diagnose various aspects of the system.  The GIS will help to accelerate integration of renewables and other DERs (Distributed Energy Resources) to our system by providing up-to-date capacity maps for developers and market participants. 

In many ways the industry is just scratching the surface of GIS potential.  To give an example, look in the consumer space how Google Maps applications have expanded, from searching directions to business and street view pictures.  In some cities, maps are available in 3D using LIDAR data containing spatial measurements of structures.

 

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