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Episode #92: 'Stepping Up to Meet the Utility's Regulatory and Policy Needs' with Dave Robertson, VP of Public Affairs at Portland General Electric [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. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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  • Aug 23, 2022
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The utility industry is one of the more tightly regulated sectors of the economy, given the local monopoly that most power providers naturally have and the essential nature of the end product: electricity to run our daily lives. As such, the interplay between the utility business side and the public policy taking place on the federal, state, and local level is a key area of focus in every utility across the country. These days especially, with topics like power outages and climate change driving public attention and government leaders alike, the regulatory and policy affairs departments of the typical utility are more in the spotlight than ever before.

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With that in the mind, it's a perfect moment in time to reflect on how the relationship between utilities and regulations have evolved over time and what this space will look like in the years to come, and to do so we must continue to lean on the institutional knowledge of the veterans of the industry. Ahead of his departure from Portland General Electric as their Vice President of Public Affairs, Dave Robertson joined host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast to reflect on his time in this role and speculate about the future direction the industry can and should take.

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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 the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast. The show that brings in thought leaders across the utility space to learn more about the latest challenges and trends defining the energy systems across the country and shaping our future. And 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. And once again I'm joined from Orlando, Florida by Matt Chester, podcast producer and Energy Central community manager. Matt, the utility sector is closely regulated and it seems every week we're hearing about new policy proposals coming from federal, state, or even local governments. And that relationship isn't just a one way street though. And utilities are often working directly with policymakers and regulators to move towards shared goals. Matt, as the Energy Central's community manager, how often do you see articles and discussion groups talk about policy and regulation by the utilities?

Matt Chester: 
That's a great question, Jason. And I'll say it's likely one of the topics that's actually most asked about in our Energy Central community. While the policies and regulations imparted at each different level of government on the power sector it impacts each office, each department of a given utility. That said, not everyone within those utilities is themselves an expert on the public policy process. So you'll have everybody from the C-suite through HR and power plants and linemen on the streets all wondering what is policy going to do to make their jobs more successful, perhaps worrying about misguided regulations impacting them negatively, and generally wanting to learn more about the process. So that's why having experts who are directly plugged into the intersection of the utility business and the public policy world is so critical for us.

Jason Price: 
That's interesting to hear, and it sets the stage for a conversation that will thus really interest our listeners today. The work that happens in the offices of public affairs across utilities is of critical and ongoing importance. And we're lucky today to be able to chat with someone who's served as the vice president at a prominent Northwestern utility, Portland General Electric. We're going to be hearing from Dave Robertson, former VP of public affairs. Dave has worked in public and governed affairs for PGE for the better part of two decades. Given the high prominence that the energy sector as a whole has recently played in government and public policy debates, clean energy to grid reliability to new energy technologies and more, we surely have a lot to learn from Dave. So let's bring him in here, Dave, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

Dave Robertson: 
Hey, Matt and Jason, thank you guys so much for having me. I'm really, really grateful to be here, it's going to be a fun discussion.

Jason Price: 
Likewise, we're thrilled to have you on. So Dave, I know we're catching you for this episode at a crossroads in your career. So I'd love to start the beginning of your time with Portland General Electric and we can work our way forwards from there. You had mentioned to us that you got your start right as the Enron scandal was playing out. What was that like for you? Did it give you any pause about working in the power sector? Or was it more of a motivation to do things better?

Dave Robertson: 
Yeah. Great question. Yeah, I think a little bit of both. I came to PGE 18 years ago and so we were right at the middle of 2004 and that was right as Enron, if you utility folks listening in on the podcast remember, we were owned by Enron for a very short period of time. But that was after their bankruptcy after the West Coast energy crisis and they were exiting and trying to sell PGE. So I came right at the end as really the Enron team was really a bunch of bankruptcy attorneys trying to pay back creditors and manage all of that. And so it was a pretty interesting time. I'd come from working at PG&E, where I worked for their national energy group, which was the... Not the California utility but there are other business lines, independent power producer business line, natural gas pipeline, energy trading, energy services. And I had been there and part of the reason why I left there is because out of the California PG&E bankruptcy, they sold our business.

Dave Robertson: 
And so to your question about what was it like, I'd come right from PG&E, was super glad to be the director of government affairs for Portland General Electric. And then I had joined right as they were supposed to emerge from bankruptcy and it turned into two or three years more of churn. And so I remember having coffee with my uncle, Jack Robertson was his name and he was the deputy administrator at Bonneville power administration, and I had talked to him about taking the job at first. And then as things started to really get crazy at the end, we had five public utility district campaigns, all at the local level, four bills at the legislature to make us public power, the city of Portland tried to take us over, and we had three failed sales attempts. And I remember having coffee with my uncle going, "Did I make a mistake here? What did I give myself into? Because this is crazy."

Dave Robertson: 
Fast forward a couple years to 2006, we were in New York on Wall Street at the stock exchange, ringing the bell and becoming a standalone utility again. And that's really what our... Our local governments really wanted that and our stakeholders really did. And I think the expectations were high when we came out to be better. I hope our stakeholder friends and regulators and everybody else feel like we've really stepped up to that and built a strong Northwest utility, really with a desire to punch above our weight at a national level. And that's what really gets me up in the morning and why this has been such a fun job here at Portland General Electric.

Jason Price: 
Well, that's a great story, a great journey, and a great uncle. So that's great to hear.

Dave Robertson: 
Yeah, right. Yeah, he is a good uncle.

Jason Price: 
So having entered the world of utility government affairs over two decades ago means you've been at the front lines of the clean energy revolution. Did you ever think that regulatory intervention was needed to move the needle or were you and your colleagues already moving in that direction?

Dave Robertson: 
Well, I mean, I think you guys have been involved in this industry for a while and it's been gradual, right? I think the public utility regulatory policy act passed back in 1978 and that was really to spur on small renewable development. And it's still alive today but it took a while to really catch some momentum. And of course the climate crisis has really sped it all up. And so I think when you think about utilities, and our listeners understand this for sure but not everybody in the world does, that utilities are a creature of our legislatures and regulation, right? And so we're built to be reliable, safe, affordable, and steady. And so I think that when you think about how do you move the needle in an environment like that, where you're really driven by regulation and policy and enabled by it, you need that regulatory intervention.

Dave Robertson: 
You need the partnership with your regulators, with the stakeholders, with consumer groups, environmental groups, to find that sweet spot and be able to have a clear path to move forward. Because without it, our life in the utility nerd world is really dependent on that clarity of the roadmap going forward. So yeah, it's been a good one. We definitely had a disposition here to move, certainly where our customers are very interested in clean energy and environmental protection here in the Northwest and in Oregon. And that really fueled a lot of certainly who we are as employees working for PGE. And we're having the customers at our back, helping us push forward. We've been the number one voluntary renewable energy program in the country for 13 years running now. And that's the customers, right? Those are the ones that are fueling that. And so I think that regulatory intervention's important, but we've had that customer push for a couple decades now, and that's really helped as we move to clean energy.

Jason Price: 
So Dave, now that you're approaching retirement, I believe in the next couple weeks, how about look back with the benefit of hindsight and talk about how you would've potentially done things differently? Or would you have a view on what the policies and regulations should've looked and how they maybe got it wrong at the outset?

Dave Robertson: 
Yeah. Yeah. Great question. When I think back the last 15 years, I gave a few date milestones on that first question, independent from Enron in 2006 and in 2007 in Oregon we did the first renewable portfolio standard bill. So pretty much right away, as a policy guy, I was jumping right from, "Are we going to be an independent company again," to, "All right, let's go on this journey to clean energy." And so there's, of course our utility listener understands, we have more than just clean energy to worry about, right? We've got rights of way. We're trying to get permits with local governments, and I'm sure we can talk about that later if you want. We've got all sorts of government actions. We've got hydro projects with water rights, fish protection that we need to worry about. And I wouldn't necessarily say we got any of it wrong.

Dave Robertson: 
I'd say as, I look back, with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what we know about this climate crisis and how quickly it's accelerating, I'd say we maybe just did things in the wrong order sometimes. And what I mean by that is at one point, I think we were three years ago, the first RPS, or renewable portfolio standard that was 25%. In 2007, we closed the first base load coal plant in the country on the Boardman coal plant. We reached a deal to do that in 2010. And then in 2016, we did a 50% renewable portfolio standard and a bill to get coal out of our rates by 2030. And so all of that was a pretty steady march. I guess I would say the backdrop of all that, as a policy matter, we had goals and statute in Oregon for greenhouse gas reduction.

Dave Robertson: 
And you asked the question earlier, Jason, about regulatory intervention. And a lot of times utilities do really well when the regulatory path is super clear. Like, "Here's your mandate, here's your goals. Now go get it done." And I'd say we could probably have gone a little faster if we had just set those goals earlier on and made them a mandate and then just went to work on planning for that transition. Again, at hindsight, I think we're in the right place right now. We passed a hundred percent clean energy law in Oregon in 2021 in the legislative session. And we had a hundred percent clean energy goals as a company the year before that. And so we're where we need to be and where we're going. I'm on the Oregon global warming commission and they just are releasing a modeling study they did which will basically say that Oregon, with all the policies and regulations that have been passed in the last few years, is going to be on track to hit its decarbonization goals by 2035. So that's good news. There's a lot of work to implement that and get it done right. But yeah, I think we're, not necessarily differently, but I think in light of the climate crisis if I could take the time machine back, I'd say, "Let's jump right to the mandate a lot quicker and just get working on it."

Jason Price: 
Sure. Everything that you just described and all the topics you cover, I would think that outsiders probably make the assumption that the public affairs office, the government affairs team, is a big department full of an army of lawyers and lobbyists and all the resources you need to get the job done. I don't think that's the case. Can you enlighten us about that?

Dave Robertson: 
Shed some light on that? Yeah. Yeah. We're not large at all. Portland General, for folks who don't know, we're a little shy of a million customers, about 900 something thousand. We cover 4,000 square miles. We're a fairly compact service area. We go from the Columbia river in Portland down to Salem, which is the state capital, that's about 55 miles south of us. We're between the two main mountain ranges in Oregon that go north to south with Mount Hood on the one side and then we've got our coastal mountain range on the other. And we're right in that spot. And so we have 51 cities, six counties, we've got power plants outside that area in far Eastern Oregon, we've got natural gas plants and hydro plants and wind farms. So we manage state, federal, local, and tribal government relations. And we've got nine federally recognized tribal governments in Oregon as well. And we've got all that with a department of 12 or 13 people between our local and state and federal government teams.

Dave Robertson: 
And so it's not a huge group. We've got six counties, I think I mentioned. I've got four local government reps that cover the counties where we have service. We provide service, we have poles and wires in the street. But they also cover areas where we've got power plant. And then I've got folks who do state government relations at the legislature. Plus at the state agencies, like Oregon department of energy, Oregon department of environmental quality. There's a lot of policy that happens on the rule making side and that team covers that as well.

Dave Robertson: 
And then at the federal government, of course... And I don't know if I mentioned early on, but I started my career as a Senate staffer in the US Senate for an Oregon Senator named Mark Hatfield. And so we've got a team that does the federal, a team of one plus a little bit of contract help that does the federal side. And sometimes that's more than just Congress, right? You're doing EPA is doing a clean power plan or something like that. And that's policy, right? So we're covering that policy as well. I guess I'd say we're a bit of a lean mean fighting machine. We're really focused on partnerships and collaboration and finding those win-wins and moving the policy needle that way. And I think that we've been pretty successful over the last 18 years or so getting a lot of stuff done that way.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. You've certainly painted an interesting picture because, especially for newcomers coming to the industry, they don't really know the breakout and the size and how utilities are organized. So I think what you've done is very helpful to paint a picture, not only for lifers, but also newcomers to understand basically the makeup of different departments and yours in particular. So thank you for sharing that.

Dave Robertson: 
Yeah. Yeah. Sure.

Jason Price: 
So I think a little bit further in your role, that's what we're here about, given that there was a smaller team but an outsized role in the industry, what are some of the key challenges that you've had to face? What's some of the source of inertia or friction between government setting policies and rules and you and your teams doing what's necessary to get the work done?

Dave Robertson: 
Yeah, I think I've got a couple of stories on that. One of course is just around generally how elected officials, government officials generally approach energy, right? It's different at different levels of government. The local governments are practical, on the ground. Their mayors are running into their constituents. Which are one of the unique parts of the electric utility industry, is our customers are almost a one-to-one relationship with voters, right? And so we're in every house, we're in every business. And so those local mayors, they're the ones who are going to the grocery store and they've got somebody running into them and yaking at them about something that's wrong in the neighborhood, or "Oh my gosh," God forbid we'd have them talking about how their utility service is terrible. And those men and women who are in those jobs are on the ground.

Dave Robertson: 
And so the stuff that we work on, on a policy basis with local governments traditionally, and still today, are things like permitting and the basic things that align crew needs to do its job. When are you able to start work in the morning? And when you end in the day? And what noise regulations do we have? And what traffic cones do you have to put up? And that's all really important for the basics of utility life, keeping the lights on, getting work done, whether you're digging in the street and repairing wires or you're up above high line repairing wires, that kind of engagement with the local government on a policy basis is super important. So you can have friction there, if we're not doing a good job with getting out on the job on time, closing down the job on time so people can commute home without the utility trucks in the road, cleaning up a job site. Those little things are where you can catch some friction between elected officials at the local level and the utility.

Dave Robertson: 
I think when you transition to the state level or the federal level, you really get a sense of the tension between the ambitions of elected officials. So let's say there's a US senator who's got really strong ambitions in wanting to push a clean energy agenda and push the industry to go farther, faster. A lot of times the tension just comes in the reality of how quick an industry ours can move, right? I mean, we're not an industry that's built for speed, right? We're more of a cross country or marathon runner than a sprinter, right? We're built for deliberation and analysis and safety and really careful decision making with the partnership with regulators.

Dave Robertson: 
And so I think some of times those elected officials really want us to go fast and get things done quickly, you hit the realities of a regulatory process and running request for proposals, for example, renewable projects. And that's just taking a while and you're having to have all the bidders rebid because inflation's really high, which is actually happening right now. So I mean, those things are, you get tension there because we're not really rewarded for going fast. We're more rewarded for being reliable, safe, and affordable at the end of the day. And clean, of course. So those are just a couple examples of how you see that tension at different levels and trying to do the very diverse work that our utility teams have to do every day out in the field.

Jason Price: 
Sure. Well, those are great examples. So let's fast forward to today where Portland General Electric has on the books, a commitment to a hundred percent GHG emission free energy to its residents by I think it's 2040. From your position that's been the obvious end game, but what does the role of governing affairs at utilities in your region look like now?

Dave Robertson: 
I think a couple of things on that one, we're really... The game now is implementation. The goals and targets in the law are set. And I think that's happening in a lot of states, Washington's like that, California's like that. Idaho doesn't have it in the law but Idaho power has a hundred percent clean goals for greenhouse gas reduction. So we're on a path to do that through many policy forms in the west due to legislation that's passed the last couple of years. And so some of those policy battles are, for the electric utilities, are settled. There are other battles going on about natural gas utilities at the moment. But on the electric side, things are pretty settled and we're really into implementation. And the biggest challenge right now is going to be, can we get projects online in time to meet our goals? Can we do it affordably? Can we make sure it's equitably done so that people in the community who have historically been left behind on the jobs associated with these projects or access to clean energy are part of the part of the mix, right? We're talking to them about how to get this done and really engaging with communities on that.

Dave Robertson: 
I think that implementation piece is going to be critical. And so the government affairs piece that you're asking about is shifting from that high level policy down to just, how are we supporting project development? Project siting, for let's say wind farms or pump storage or other clean energy projects. How are we helping with the distribution side of our systems, right? Because that whole piece of the world, that innovation around the clean grid and solar and distributed generation and relying on customers to turn down their thermostats or being able to do that automatically as utility, that side of the clean energy equation is going to be super important. And all that local government work that we do and working with those entities is going to become even more important.

Dave Robertson: 
And we've got cities here, and I should probably mention this, but we've got cities in Oregon who want to go a hundred percent clean before the state targets. So we've got a 80% by 2030 state target, a 100% by 2040 clean energy. And that's a 100% clean energy with the power we served to our customers. I've got some cities who have passed resolutions who want to get there to 1005 by 2035 or 2030. And so one of the challenges for us is, well, how do you help them with that? Right? We're building that base of clean energy but they're going to want to have an incremental product or green power purchase that helps them get to clean five years ahead of everybody else.

Dave Robertson: 
And so a lot of that local government stuff is really going to come into play and be important as we are implementing the clean 100% clean laws and trying to help our customers who want to go further, faster, get there. So it's going to be a fascinating decade for sure. So lots of podcasts to come, I'm sure, for you guys. It's going to be great.

Jason Price: 
No doubt, no doubt. When you were listing off those activities that will come out of your office, I would imagine also reporting, right? Just informing the commissions, reporting performance of the results, what's going on, why you're not hitting certain results. I think that there's a reporting component too, I would imagine.

Dave Robertson: 
That's absolutely true. I think that's always been true for regulated entities us. I think it's going to be even more true because I think we're all accountable at some level for making these goals and getting stuff done. And whether you're a regulator at the commission or you're a CEO at a utility or you're state department of energy, I mean, there's a lot of expectation about it and I think that reporting is key. Always a no surprises rule in the government affairs world at utilities, right? You never want to surprise regulators or any of our stakeholders that we're not making it or we're having some struggles. We want to bring them along all the way through because they may have some great ideas to help us get around that, right? And so I think that engagement and partnership is going to be critical and that reporting is going to be super important.

Dave Robertson: 
I think the way we gather that clean energy data is a big piece of, even internally, on how our systems are set up so that we've got the right data gathering so that we can report and be accurate for more than once a year basis, right? You're going to have to report on that a lot more real time.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, sure. We're going to shift for a moment to a different component of the show, but we are going to come back and give you the last word. But now we're going to enter in what we call lightning round, which is where we ask you some questions where we want to learn about Dave Robertson the person, not Dave Robertson the professional. We're going to ask you a series of questions, keep your response to one word or phrase, but feel free to elaborate if you need to, you're not going to lose points from that. So are you ready?

Dave Robertson: 
Sounds good. I'm ready. I'm ready.

Jason Price: 
Okay. What time of day is best for you to get work done?

Dave Robertson: 
Morning.

Jason Price: 
If you had a theme song played when you entered a room, what would it be?

Dave Robertson: 
It's a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock and Roll by ACDC, probably.

Jason Price: 
If you weren't working in energy, what might your career path have been?

Dave Robertson: 
Government or mountain bike manufacturing.

Jason Price: 
What is your favorite store to register for your retirement party? Hint, hint.

Dave Robertson: 
Yeah, a good one. REI, for sure, REI.

Jason Price: 
What are you most passionate about?

Dave Robertson: 
The climate fight, clean energy, and mental health parity as well.

Jason Price: 
Terrific. Thanks for pulling back the curtain to let us learn a little bit more about yourself. So as a reward for your performance we're going to give you the floor. And knowing that your peers across the utility industry are listening in, what's the one takeaway piece of knowledge you hope they glean from today's conversation?

Dave Robertson: 
Thanks for the floor, that's great. I love my utility peers. We have an incredible industry that is super collaborative, we share best practices, we talk all the time. We have mutual assistance agreements when we're in trouble and an ice storm or a wildfire, we've got utilities from all over the west to come and help us and help our teams. And I just, first off, want to express my gratitude to our listening audience and all the partnerships on policy and just on every day, getting the job done, that we've been able to do over the years I've been here has really just made coming to work fun for me. The next 10 to 20 years are going to be the most consequential in our industry, I think, since the 1930s when we were trying to electrify America. It's an amazing opportunity to build a system and leave a legacy for our children and future generations around a clean energy system that will serve folks for decades and decades to come.

Dave Robertson: 
And so we can have a huge impact on the planet and people in our communities. And we always do, I think utility workers have a heart for service, public service and serving the public. We've got a lot of vets who work at utilities and our line crews are like our varsity team on the field. I mean, those folks, they have got a heart for service like nobody I've ever met. And this is really a chance for all of us to really have an impact on the people that are in our communities, our neighbors and our friends. And they're counting on us, right? I mean, they're counting on us, whether that's policy makers or our neighbor next door, to get it right, to make it clean, affordable, reliable, equitable. I mean, those are all the pieces that I think are just table stakes for us now. We've got a great opportunity to involve people and get that right. And we also have a great responsibility.

Dave Robertson: 
So I'm super excited by that. I'd say, now that I say all those things, I probably, if I were going to ask myself the question, what the theme songs should the utility industry have in their head when they're doing this... I'm stealing your light ground question, Jason. But when they're doing this transformation over the next 10 or 20 years, I'd probably say Eye of the Tiger is probably where we should be thinking. We've really got to be focused and it's going to be a lot of fun, a lot of work, and it's just going to be an amazing couple of decades.

Jason Price: 
That's awesome. And that's a great song by the way, so that's great. Well, this is phenomenal. I mean, I think that having the opportunity and privilege to talk to you is really extraordinary. And we speak to movers and shakers in this industry, and I've thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today. And I'm really excited to hear what the Energy Central community thinks of this conversation. And I'm sure they'll let us know in the comment section. So thank you so much, Dave, for sharing your insight with us on today's episode.

Dave Robertson: 
You bet, guys, thanks so much for having me. And I love your podcast, it's really, really helpful for the industry. Thanks for keeping it going.

Jason Price: 
Well, we appreciate that. And you can always reach Dave through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. And we also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsors who 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. And once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. So 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.

 


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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