Exploring changing utility dynamics

DistribuTECH 2019 was an unprecedented success as the global utility community came together to continue to explore the changing energy landscape and learn strategies, develop new techniques and explore solutions to problems that plague them in their everyday lives.

We explore some of the key themes that came out of the conference and Hub sessions below.

Customers are the heart of the utility industry, say keynote speakers

With customers getting more savvy, and having higher expectations surrounding technology in general, utilities must become partners with their customers, not simply suppliers of electricity.

This was an overarching message during the keynote session.

Paul Hinnenkamp, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Entergy, said that with evolving customer expectations, there is a need to shift to providing the products and services customers want and the outcomes they desire. In fact, this evolution continues to be refined and reimagined, and utilities’ long-term success is dependent on the ability to provide products and services that change the lives of customers.

“If this business is going to be disrupted, why don’t we disrupt it ourselves?” Hinnenkamp asked.

Philip Mezey, president and CEO of Itron, said that with fuel sources becoming more diverse and challenges to providing clean, reliable and affordable electricity growing, utilities must focus on how they can use data in “new and interesting ways” to gain the insight needed to most effectively target problem areas and resolve difficulties.

This was an overarching message during the keynote session.

Echoing the message of new challenges, Terence Donnelly, president and chief operating officer of Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), discussed what it used to take to succeed as a utility vs what it really means to be a utility today. In fact, in this “new era of power,” Donnelly said, “We’re not in the utility business anymore.”

Electric vehicles

Erika Myers, director of research for the Smart Electric Power Alliance, kicked off the Expanding the Grid Hub session with straight talk on the challenges and inevitability of an electric vehicle revolution. She recommended that interested utilities move fast and develop clear strategies for EV charging system installation and integration.

“Develop a robust EV strategy,” Myers said. “Know where you want to go and how you want to get there.”

Many think there’s plenty of time to deal with all of it, but she added later that utilities in many states have maybe 5-10 years. That accelerated timeline takes a lot of strategy and planning.

Henry Bailey, chief strategy officer at consulting firm Utegration, underlined Myers’ point with some forecasts out of Texas. An ERCOT report envisions 1.6 million electric vehicles on the road by 2031, some 20% of total passenger vehicles in Texas today.

Internet of Things and data

The Digitalizing the Grid Hub’s first panel sessions featured experts from Siemens, AEP, ConEdison and Entergy. Discussions centeredon the Internet of Things and data analyticsenabled co-creation for grid operations.

One key point stressed through the panel session was handling the challenge of so-called “structured data,” implementing advanced load management and a lot of other potentials that come with wading through a proverbial ton of data.


The power grid industry is vulnerable to cyberattacks, but that assault may not be a bold offensive led by brazen digital overlords.

“Bad guys always take the path of least resistance,” said Paul Feldman, board director with EnergySec and a cybersecurity expert of many other titles.

Feldman was one of three experts offering a 90-minute take on best practices in cybersecurity. He was joined by Rick Mroz, a former New Jersey and federal regulator and now senior advisor for Protect Our Power, as well as Gary Johnson, senior director of cybersecurity and infrastructure for Evergy (created from the merger of Kansas City Power & Light and Westar Energy in Missouri and Kansas).

“We can all see that cybersecurity threats are going to evolve,” said Mroz. “It’s a threat like no other and it requires collaboration.”

“Having someone else with a different point of view to assess threats makes a lot of sense,” Johnson said. “Usually they can find two or three things we missed.”

Vegetation management

Vegetation management by electric utilities is not the most exciting or sexy topic to discuss, but it is vitally important, as recent incidents around the California wildfires have brought to the fore. In fact, vegetation management is frequently the single largest line item in annual operating budgets, exceeding $100 million annually in many larger utilities.

Speaking of the wildfires, Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, discussed the “wildfire challenge” in 2018.

Overall, she said, utility ignitions are responsible for about 10% of all wildfires in the state. She presented research showing the no. 1 cause of wildfires is vegetation contact with transmission lines, with the no. 2 cause being wire/splice failure. Together, these account for about half of all utility infrastructure fire ignitions.

In California, Malashenko said, utilities spend about $1 billion annually on vegetation management. SEI

Encouraging women to leadership roles in transmission and distribution

Shay Bahramirad, director of smart grid and technology with Commonwealth Edison (ComEd); Jennifer Runyon, , JoJo Hubbard, chief operating officer with Electron
and Vera Silva, chief technology officer with GE Grid Solutions.

Although we lament the dearth of women working in leadership positions in the transmission and distribution fields, the attendees at the Power Women networking breakfast at DistribuTECH 2019 were able to gain inspiration and insight from several strong women who are proven leaders.

During this breakfast, Vera Silva, chief technology officer with GE Grid Solutions; Shay Bahramirad, director of smart grid and technology with Commonwealth Edison (ComEd); and JoJo Hubbard, chief operating officer with Electron, answered a series of questions about their experiences as women in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Silva discussed how she was the first female senior manager at GE, and many expressed surprise that this milestone was achieved by someone on the “technical” side of the company. She said women have to have “twice the legitimacy” as men to be talking about technology.

Hubbard talked about her experience doing fundraising for her company and, during meetings, all the questions were directed to the man on her team. She said only 2.7% of available venture capital goes into female-founded companies.

Bahramirad commented that in the past there may not have been a lot of women at the table at technical conferences, and the ones there were taking notes but not raising their hands.

On the subject of recruiting and diversity, all discussed the need to continue bringing women in and recognizing them and encouraging them to grow and seek opportunities. Bahramirad helped found the IEEE Women in Power group, and Silva mentioned a women’s network within GE that provides support. Hubbard discussed the importance of providing diversity in career opportunities, to give women exciting, compelling choices from the bottom up of a company.

The bottom line: Women can and do succeed in leadership positions in transmission and distribution industries, but they need to have the confidence to bring themselves forward. Or, as Silva said, “reinvent leadership in the feminine perspective.”