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Welcome Chris Guttman-McCabe, New Expert in the Digital Utility Community - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]

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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Jul 29, 2021 10:45 am GMT
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The utility sector has arguably never been more exciting and dynamic as it is today, at least perhaps the most innovative since the early days of the power industry’s infancy. The rate at which new technologies and digital solutions are being connected to the grid and empowering customers and energy providers alike is exhilarating, and it’s creating new opportunities left and right.

 

It can feel like a chore to keep track of all of these rapid and critical developments, but that’s where Energy Central’s Digital Utility Group and its associated Network of Experts come in. These resources are here for Energy Central Community Members to be able to plug into the cutting edge thought leadership from the industry’s top minds on a day-to-day basis. And to ensure we continue to have the best information and experience ready for you, Energy Central is always adding new relevant voices to this expert network.

 

With that, it’s time to introduce you to the latest of those expert voices, Chris Guttman-McCabe, the Chief Regulatory and Communications Officer at Anterix. Chris fills a leading role in the Anterix organization as the company continues to expand private broadband for utilities and other critical infrastructure, and he’s agreed to share a first peek into his expertise via the Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’

 

Give a read, leave a note in the comments to welcome Chris to the community, and then keep an eye out for him to sharing some leading industry insights moving forward!

 

Matt Chester: We’re so grateful to have you as an Energy Central expert, Chris. Let’s start with the basics—what was your journey in this industry? How did you gather your knowledge and expertise, and what do you do as Anterix’s Chief Regulatory and Communications Officer today?

Chris Guttman-McCabe: I guess it makes the most sense to explain the destination, and then I’ll describe the journey.  Anterix is a publicly traded telecommunications company that helps utilities develop the private, modern wireless networks they need to make the smart grid work.  It is the largest holder of spectrum in the 900 MHz band and was the driving force behind the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to change its rules last May to allow spectrum in that band to be used for broadband communications—prior to that it could only accommodate narrowband systems. 

 

That’s a good place to start describing what I do, because it included advocating for the rule change at the FCC.  That was a huge step for the company—it paved the way for all the opportunities that broadband spectrum can enable—and it also signaled a big change in my duties.  Now I help Anterix get the word out about the importance of grid modernization in general, and the corresponding need for private, secure, broadband communications networks.  So, I’m responsible for educating the public, the industry, federal and state agencies, the Administration, and Congress.  It’s a lot of ground to cover, but I have a great team and we have a great story.  It’s this simple:  data is what makes the smart grid smart; but data is useless unless it is communicated; so, you can’t have a smart grid without secure, reliable, private data communications networks.

 

And that gets me to the journey—I’m a telecom guy who has had to learn a lot about the electric utility industry.  An attorney with a background in economics, I worked for 13 years at CTIA, the leading wireless trade association, as a spokesperson and advocate for the wireless industry, serving as Executive Vice President before leaving to open a small consulting firm.  One of my clients was Anterix—and you know what happened next.

 

MC: As the utility sector increasingly brings in the world of smart technology and telecommunications, what exactly is the role of the government and regulators going to be during that process?

CG: Government will help smart grid progress in big ways and small, from broad policy pronouncements to potentially very specific initiatives like infrastructure and grid modernization funding and state PUC considerations of modernization proposals.  At the broadest level, the federal government’s focus on climate change and decarbonization should spur the adoption of smart grid communications networks and the grid management technologies that depend upon them.  It is widely understood that the country will not meet its climate goals without substantial growth in reliance on renewable, distributed energy resources, and I believe that growth cannot be achieved without modernizing the grid to accommodate two-way, intermittent power flow.  The smart technology that will make that possible depends upon secure, reliable, utility-controlled grid communications networks.

 

Another area where I think we can expect some governmental influence will be cybersecurity.  I would not be surprised if the government made a number of recommendations for improving protections for critical infrastructure industries; with the SolarWinds attack and new hacks happening all the time, government at all levels is focused on this problem.  And one way to help address it is very straightforward:  disconnect critical infrastructure communications networks from the public internet to cut off remote access.  By supporting utility efforts to build their own private grid control network, government could help make this best practice a more widespread one.

 

MC: For industry advocates who want to see technologies like the smart grid continue, what are the types of public policies that they should be pushing for?

CG: Anything that will help utilities obtain the resources and flexibility to broadly embrace the digitization of the grid.  Specifically, forward thinking policies that recognize the benefits ratepayers will realize from infrastructure modernization. Because grid modernization is at the intersection of telecommunications, information technology, and electric power, the policy waterfront is extremely broad.  Items as varied as R&D support for new technology innovation, tax credits, infrastructure funding, and cybersecurity support and standards for critical infrastructure—all of these are areas of potential focus. 

MC: How does the work that you do in supporting private broadband for utilities differ based on region—are there different needs in rural vs. urban areas, for example? Or any geographical considerations?

CG: The service footprints of many utilities often cover areas that are urban, suburban and rural, so they must address a range of deployment and service issues. There is one interesting issue that arises regarding private broadband for rural areas, but it’s not about electricity, as you might think.  When we are talking with utilities about 900 MHz private wireless communications for their grid control systems, they frequently ask us how we can help them help their rural customers get online, bringing consumer broadband internet service to rural areas that currently are underserved.  Our answer is that when the utility builds a private wireless broadband network to carry critical grid data, it will be deploying the same kind of infrastructure that a commercial consumer broadband provider would deploy—things like radio towers, power supplies, and fiber.  If the utility can share (or augment and share) such “middle-mile” infrastructure with a third-party, that third-party could use it to provide consumer broadband internet service to an area previously unserved without the enormous expense of a separate build-out—an expense that is a substantial obstacle to rural broadband deployment in the first place, given the very small number of potential subscribers in rural areas from which to try to recoup the cost.  Yes, in some states there are legislative and regulatory issues with IOUs, for example, following this approach, but the pandemic has raised the rural broadband issue to a priority, so I hope and expect those obstacles to fall away over time.

Also, in states focused on wildfire mitigation, like California, Washington, Oregon and others, we do put a lot of effort into helping address that challenge.  We recently signed an agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric to give them dedicated use of 900 MHz spectrum in the counties they serve.  SDG&E plans to use it for a private LTE network that will, among other things, provide wireless connectivity for its Falling Conductor Protection system, which relies on low latency communications to detect a powerline that has fallen and de-energize it before it hits the ground, thus helping to prevent wildfires.  We are also working with SDG&E and other utilities to launch a Technology Accelerator to focus on grid modernization innovation and wildfire mitigation.

 

MC: When you look to the near-term future, what area of your work has you most excited and gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s driving you in this area?

CG: Well, first, to answer you literally:  we have a puppy, so it’s the dog that gets me out of bed in the morning.  But to answer your question the way you really meant it, the most exciting thing about my work is the opportunity to help address one of the most pressing, complex problems of our time—and that’s climate change.  It only makes it more exciting that I get to work with perhaps the most deeply impactful industry in the country.  I’m always mindful of the guy with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail, and this is not that.  The climate-driven need for utilities to decarbonize—especially as the transportation sector increasingly electrifies—will require the extensive use of information technology and utility-grade broadband data networks to enable that technology.  I don’t see a way around it.  Imagine the utility sector using ubiquitous secure broadband to accelerate the integration of cloud and edge computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, all targeted toward to goal of decarbonization.  So, anything I can do to help utilities learn about and obtain those critical networks, that’s exciting to me.

______________________________________

Thanks to Chris Guttman-McCabe for joining me for this interview and for providing a wealth of insights and expertise to the Energy Central Community. You can trust that Chris will be available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see him across the platform.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

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