- Apr 20, 2021 1:05 pm GMT
This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-04 - Leaders In Innovation, click here for more
In early February, Energy Central dispatched our second annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation. We asked our community to nominate leaders who they thought were charging the path for rapid evolution across the sector today-- explicitly looking for those who carry the necessary attitudes to adapt to change while embracing and encouraging new ideas.
The response was overwhelming, making it challenging for the Energy Central Community Team and our committee of industry thought leaders-- selected from among our Energy Central Network of Experts-- to narrow the list of nominees to the final six Champions of Innovation.
I am happy to announce that Vicki Kuo, Vice President of Energy Efficiency and Distributed Resource Planning at Con Edison, was chosen as one of our final six. Vicki was nominated for her key role played in Con Edison's leadership towards the clean energy transition, including energy efficiency and demand management programs, electric vehicle infrastructure rollout, and a decarbonization-focused electric distribution architecture.
Please help us celebrate Vicki's success by reading some of the insights garnered from an exclusive Innovation Champion Interview between her and Matt Chester, Energy Central's Community Manager. I would also love it if you congratulate her by leaving a message in the comments section at the bottom of this article, or even feel free to share a general question or comment for her on these important topics.
Vicki's history with Con Edison
I joined Con Edison after graduating college with a B.S. in electrical engineering. Con Edison offers a great rotational program where you can learn about the various aspects of the energy business. I worked in generation, transmission, and distribution during the rotation. After a few years on the regulated side of the utility business, I joined our unregulated subsidiary for a while. I have a passion for technology and entrepreneurship, so I left Con Edison to join a cybersecurity startup company. It was a welcomed but big cultural shock changing industries and being at a startup, especially during the dotcom crash. After many years of working in a startup environment, I rejoined Con Edison in the energy efficiency department because I want to make an impact on our environment. My current role includes all the energy efficiency programs, non-wire alternatives, heating and transportation electrification initiatives, non pipes alternatives, demand response, and distributed resource planning which includes grid modernization efforts.
Vicki's keys to successful utility innovation
Innovation starts with questioning everything. Always question why you are doing something and if there is a better way to do it. That doesn’t mean you stop doing what you do until you come up with a better way. It doesn’t always mean there is a practical better way. But the mindset will train you to always be looking for innovative and creative solutions in everything you do. As leaders or managers, we need to help our teams build that mindset.
There are two things I always keep in mind when it comes to innovation. First is the question of “what pain point are you trying to solve for your customer” and the other is focus. I’ve learned that there is no shortage of great innovative ideas. But first and foremost, these ideas have to be of value of your customers. Second is that you have to focus. Chasing after every innovative idea could result in nothing getting done. What measures you use to focus varies. Sometimes it’s the ease of implementation, sometimes it’s the biggest impact, sometimes it’s cost effectiveness. Having the right framework and criteria is key to successful innovation.
Examples of innovation at Con Edison
We have pioneered a regulatory model that drives energy efficiency overachievement; focuses activities on deeper, harder to deliver energy efficiency projects needed to achieve our state’s long-term net-zero carbon goals; and smooths out the program costs for our customers over time. This framework has led to our program savings more than tripling since 2016. We came up with the concept by really thinking about the needs and focused on how to solve pain points. The need here is massive carbon goals, the large and sustained investment needs, and how do we build a sustainable regulatory model that can help us overcome the pain points. Once we came up with a rough idea, we communicated and worked with stakeholders both internally and externally. We listened refined the model with everyone’s input.
We are the first U.S. utility (or one of the first) to have developed and be implementing a non-pipes framework that uses targeted electrification and demand-side measures to defer or avoid gas distribution infrastructure investments. This framework places these demand-side expenditures on more level footing with traditional gas infrastructure to embed them as a core solution in our business. It also addresses the unique challenges and opportunities that decarbonization poses to the gas system. For instance, depending on where a need exists on the system, the strategy will vary. A cul de sac in a residential neighborhood facing the need to replace old, leak-prone pipes will present a strong opportunity to fully electrify those customers and retire that portion of the system. In contrast, energy efficiency and lower-cost electrification (e.g., heat pump water heating) will be the preferred solutions to avoid the need to upsize a main at capacity in a dense area of the Bronx.
Gas non pipe alternatives relying on electrification also create some unique challenges and opportunities because of the cross-system impacts. Pulling out the stops to fully electrify a neighborhood to meet a gas need could be shortsighted if the increased electric load triggers costly electric system upgrades. This is already a potential problem on a localized basis, and in a long-term winter-peaking future where heat pumps provide a substantial portion of our territory’s space heating needs, it could pose network-wide issues. In this example, the non-pipe alternative project would likely need to plan to pair heating electrification with aggressive building envelope upgrades to manage the winter peak. The gas utility will need to expand its focus to consider these sort of cross-commodity impacts to minimize costs to our customers and society. Non pipes solutions and non wires solutions need to work in tandem, and organizations like mine are critical to building that bridge.
Biggest innovation challenges
The biggest challenge is balancing execution and innovation. We need to deliver on our programs’ goals. That requires relentless focus on execution and implementation. Yet at the same time, if we don’t innovate, we will become stagnant and can’t provide long-term benefits to our customers. Innovation takes time, resources, and it means taking risks. How do you balance these two very different requirements? It’s a constant balancing and rebalancing of risks.
What's coming next for Vicki and Con Edison
The next few years will be exciting in so many different areas. To start with, electrification of transportation is important to achieving our climate goals. Utilities have an important role to play to facilitate this important transition. Another area of innovation that is needed is how do we decarbonize heating systems. We need technology innovation, we need process innovation, we need to design innovative offerings to change customer energy consumption. There is much to be done.
Energy Central thanks Vicki Kuo for her irreplaceable contributions to our great industry and for truly embodying what it is to be an Innovation Champion. We encourage leaders to share a note of thanks, ask a question, or just your two cents in the comments below. To see the other Energy Central Innovation Champions, see the rest of the Special Issue on Innovation in the Electric Power Industry.
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