Electric utility leaders report progress and accelerated technology amidst COVID-19

Published on June 05, 2020 by Chris Galford

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Customer engagement is up, technology rollouts are coming faster than ever expected, and work culture has changed for electric utilities operating in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate leaders said Thursday.

A virtual panel discussion on navigating the COVID-19 crisis gathered together Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Consumers Energy; Badar Khan, president of National Grid; Maria Pope, president and CEO of Portland General Electric; and Brad Gammons, global managing director for Energy and Utilities at IBM. Sponsored by Greentech Media and Wood Mackenzie, the panel focused on how their companies were using digital tools to enhance the customer experience and how the pandemic has affected their service. In many ways, it was a referendum on how utilities have navigated the crisis.

One thing that all four leaders were clear about is that in the age of social distancing, quarantines and viral threats, electric utilities have nevertheless navigated their way to successful operations. That does not mean it has been business as usual, though, and in many cases, the changes that are being undertaken could signal shifts for future work.

“We’ve got a lot of people working from home,” Khan said. “That, by itself, helps mitigate some of the costs because we don’t have people traveling back and forth. We’ve got all sorts of reviews we do and exercises to understand if work is really necessary. One of the great things is we’ve found ways to work more efficiently, make decisions fast, support and engage our customers in ways we didn’t think were possible.”

A common effort for utilities was to sequester facilities and employees, sanitize frequently and push operations to more remote environments as part of promoting a safety culture. For example, Poppe pointed to Consumers Energy workers storing equipment at home now and running to job sites from their own neighborhoods, rather than a centralized facility. Gammons noted that, at this point, 95 percent of IBM’s employees were working remotely. National Grid had all its call center agents working from home within weeks.

But this in turn raises questions for the future of the business. Gammons asked how one gauges the future: where to put workers, how to protect them, how to modify work being done and facilities being used.

“Situational awareness is the broader term, of where they are, what their roles are, keeping reliability and resilience of the grid and the workforce, and how you take care of them while they’re doing those jobs,” Gammons said.

That said, expectations from a year ago have been blown away by the reality of the pandemic. Residential load in the Consumers Energy service area of Michigan has increased by 45 percent, while the commercial-industrial load has fallen between 20-25 percent. That’s likely to change with the state’s stay-at-home order now lifted, but COVID-19 has brought change across the board. In Michigan, the spread of smart meter technology has helped utilities understand such load shifts.

Meanwhile, Portland General Electric’s Pope pointed to increasing automation and use of technology as a prime example of change.

“We’re transforming more rapidly than we otherwise would have before the crisis,” Pope said. “We’re also giving customers a better experience so customers can be more empowered to manage their energy future.”

Noting the need to ask questions about speed and transformation, Pope added, “It’s important we use this period of time for the long term.”

Working with Google and Uplight, Consumers Energy intends to distribute 100,000 free NEST thermostats during the crisis to better accelerate its demand response. Some 25,000 have already been distributed. National Grid has increased its own demand response programs to bolster energy efficiency, particularly in New York City, where there’s limited ability to bring in new supplies. The company has also had to figure out how to undertake efficiency operations virtually since its employees can no longer enter customers’ homes. All reported increased efforts at customer engagement, improvements to communication and collaboration.

“The smart grid is maturing and we’re getting a lot of value for the customers,” Gammons said.

Poppe also made one thing clear in her assessment: the current crisis has underscored the necessity of democratizing data key. Doing so, she said, has allowed Consumers to insource its digital transformation and allow the whole company to apply lessons and technologies learned, like artificial intelligence, leading to improved workflow throughout, from increased automation to improvements in the accuracy of estimates.

Yet while this has all been built on years of work and adaptability, some of those aspects – and how well they have worked – caught the companies a bit off guard.

“We’re all a little surprised at how well everything is going from home,” Pope said. “The foundational reason for that is we’ve accelerated the pace of technology throughout our organization over the last couple years, and that’s really paid dividends. We’re now engaging with customers in a much more digital fashion, meeting them where they want.”