Lines 1011

Lines with Mt. Rainier in the distance.

Completely squeezing carbon emissions out of the electric grid requires changing utility culture, not just deploying new technology, said the heads of Tacoma, Seattle and Snohomish County utilities during an Oct. 8 panel at the GridForward 2019 conference in Seattle.

However, the magnitude of change in the industry already underway can feel like a tsunami, they cautioned, so utilities cannot do it all at once and need to pace themselves.

The three utilities serve much of the crowded and fast-growing Interstate 5 corridor along Puget Sound.

To be sure, change is not a choice; it is coming, and not just to technology, but to customers' expectations. And if utilities put it off, customers will find solutions elsewhere, said Seattle City Light General Manager and CEO Debra Smith. Her utility serves about 900,000 customers in the Seattle metro area.

"It's hard to grow gracefully," Smith said.

Like other utilities in the region, Seattle faces looming capacity and revenue challenges at the same time customer expectations and utility industry technology are undergoing sea changes.

The industry has to move from a one-way, "one-lane country road and turning it into a multilane highway," she said.

That, in turn, allows utilities to solve grid constraints and other issues in new ways. Building a new substation is not the default solution anymore to meeting local loads and resolving constraints, Smith said.

Changing utility culture is critical to making the most of new technologies and solving new challenges. SCL, Tacoma Power and Snohomish County PUD each have created interdisciplinary divisions or teams designed to embrace the rapidly arriving future.

SCL recently launched an electrification division to lead the way on, among other things, distributed energy resources, and on electrifying public transit, ferries and operations at the Port of Seattle, as well as personal vehicles. Building a dynamic, two-way grid is key to making all the moving pieces work and meeting load in cost-effective ways, Smith said.

Snohomish PUD and Tacoma Power have taken similar steps. Snohomish's new DER team consists of people from engineering, system planning, rates and elsewhere across the utility's organizational chart, Snohomish PUD General Manager John Haarlow said.

Over the past year, the PUD has made a "directional change," he said. It has pivoted from a decade of focusing on generation research and design work to its essential role as a distribution company.

SnoPUD's DER team is emblematic of that pivot and the utility's changing culture. The team is working to optimize the PUD's grid. "How do we leverage excess capacity on our system for where we have constraints?" he said.

Since it was assembled 18 months ago, Snohomish's reliability improvement team has identified cost-effective ways to reduce the number and length of outages. But technological solutions are only as good as an organization's culture, Haarlow said.

"We can have [new technology] on the system, but if our [system] operators don't leverage those . . . how effective are they? So, it's not just deploying the technology, it's changing the management culture," he said.

Likewise, demand response is not just about installing new equipment. It's about changing the relationship with customers. Imagine a cold winter night when capacity is constrained, Haarlow said.

To ease the strain, a utility could signal customers they can get a $10 Starbucks gift card for turning off appliances. The solution there, Haarlow said, relies not just on the tech, but also on gamifying the situation for customers and engaging them to have an impact.

Jackie Flowers, who runs Tacoma Power's parent organization, Tacoma Public Utilities, underscored the need for cultural change.

"Are we nimble enough? Are we agile enough for all of the changes that are coming both in terms of how we operate internally, how we connect with our customers, and how we handle the data?" she said. Utilities must "prepare for the data ocean" that is arriving on the multilane highway.

Customers' expectations are changing based on the services they receive from other industries. Utilities should look to other industries that have successfully transformed in the digital era, Flowers said.

If they don't, utilities might find leaders in other industries edging into their service territories, further disrupting their business models.

"If I don't meet my customers' needs, who do you think will? An Amazon or Google," Smith said.

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.