A New Approach to Electric Power
Date: Monday, March 26, 2007 @ 21:40:52 MST
March 26, 2007
Martin Rosenberg, Editor-in-Chief
A large group of utility industry executives quietly convened in Kansas City, Mo., on a snowy day in January to sign on to an unprecedented shift in business strategy and corporate culture, entirely rethinking how they keep the lights on in homes and offices across America. The twin goals they hope to reach are a dramatic boost in energy efficiency and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
It will require a profound shift in an industry that for a century has understood its mission to be encouraging the ever-increasing use of electric power.
At long last, Thomas Edison is ready to be introduced to Bill Gates.
Call it a remarkable convergence of political, technological and business trends.
Al Gore's zealous campaign against global warming and the recent sea change in Democratic power in Congress provide the backdrop.
The power of the microchip and huge leaps in communications capabilities in recent decades make it possible to take an array of dumb, energy-voracious appliances and machines and forge a coordinated, efficient network that takes a minimal flow of electrons to make our lives productive and pleasant.
Tens of billions are about to be invested to replace aging power infrastructure and deal with an anticipated surge in power demand. Decisions made today will affect consumers for generations. So the moment is right for utilities to rethink a century-old paternalistic approach to their business and forge a smarter, collaborative relationship with their customers.
Mindful of the significance of the choices before them, upwards of 50 senior managers and CEOs of investor-owned utilities, rural electric co-ops and public power agencies gathered in response to an invitation from Michael Chesser, chairman and CEO of the local utility, Great Plains Energy. The attendees serve about 60 percent of America.
Chesser, respected throughout the industry as a soft-spoken visionary, was appointed chairman of new energy technology committees at the Electric Power Research Institute, the research arm of utilities, and the Edison Electric Institute, the political voice of investor-owned utilities.
For the past year, EPRI has held five regional meetings with utilities to scope out what needs to get done short-term and long-term. The blueprints for a complex, industry wide self-transformation have been drafted. The utilities plan a major communications campaign with their customers and policy makers in the months ahead.
While revolutionary, the program is not wild-eyed radical. Utilities, genetically risk-averse, are convinced that any investment in new technology made today will not look ridiculously silly to stockholders and regulators a year or two from now. What do they have in mind?