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Reimagining the Future of Electricity

By Alisa Ferguson

Editorial note: This guest blog by XPRIZE consultant Alisa Ferguson is the second in our ongoing series of pieces by individuals who attended SEPA’s recent 51st State Summit in Denver. In the coming weeks, we will continue to publish a range of views on the process of industry change, a discussion that the 51st State Initiative aims to facilitate. The views expressed here are the author’s own, not SEPA’s.

I recently came across a quote by Albert Einstein.

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

Fortunately, most of the problems we face in work and life each day are not as grand or urgent as saving the planet in an hour. Still, no matter what challenge we’re facing, it’s easy to rush or even skip defining the problem and instead go straight to thinking about the solution.

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Alisa Ferguson

That’s why I was enthusiastic about participating in the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s (SEPA’s) recent 51st State Summit, a one-day event attended by more than 100 energy industry thought leaders from both inside and outside the sector. Instead of starting with the question — “How do we improve the current electric grid?” — SEPA challenged summit attendees to imagine what they would like the future grid to look like.

Find out about SEPA’s award-winning 51st State Initiative here.

How would it operate? How would it serve the needs of utilities, developers and customers alike? By turning the question around, participants could let go of typical default reactions — such as “We can’t do this today” — and instead refocus attention on what we want to achieve tomorrow, before thinking about how we can get there.

Utilities often are criticized for being risk averse, which, in fact, they are. But the reason, in large part, is because we depend on them and the services they provide to be available on demand 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

However, a commitment to reliability doesn’t mean utilities can never change or try new things. It also doesn’t mean they don’t want to. I find talking about change in the right context makes all the difference.

Read industry consultant James Tong’s guest blog on the 51st State Summit here.

At the 51st State Summit, I was speaking to an electric cooperative executive about innovation and how to test new technologies – and the resulting chicken-and-egg problem facing utilities and technology developers. Utilities want new technologies to be proven before connecting them to their power plants or distribution systems, but technology developers cannot sufficiently prove their cutting-edge products and services unless they can demonstrate and test them under real-world conditions.

I pressed the executive about how this barrier might be overcome, offering some different ideas and approaches. Yet he remained steadfastly pessimistic about the challenge. Then, as we exchanged business cards, I told him I worked with XPRIZE. Suddenly, his whole demeanor changed. I saw a spark in his eyes.

“Isn’t XPRIZE the group working on new carbon utilization technologies?” he asked.

Yes, I told him, last fall XPRIZE launched the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, which challenges teams from around the globe to develop innovative approaches for converting carbon dioxide emissions into valuable products. He was immediately excited and optimistic about the possibilities and the new technologies this competition might uncover.

“That’s exactly the kind of innovation we need,” he said. “If those solutions work, they could be a game changer for utilities.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about this encounter. What changed in his mind from the first part of the conversation? Why had he so quickly become more open to my point of view? Upon reflection, I see three key reasons.

First, the problem and the potential solution needed to be framed in the specific context of the user. My initial talk with this executive about innovation and new technologies sounded to him like risk. But when we switched to a specific solution that might solve a problem relevant for his business–and actually help reduce risk over the long term—he heard it in a new and different way.

Second, sometimes hearing a new voice can help change a perspective. We’ve all had the experience of attending conferences or events where we see the same familiar faces every time. Representing XPRIZE at the 51st State Summit, I was definitely an outlier – a fact that gave me an opening to start conversations about new topics and from a different perspective. Even if people didn’t always agree with me, they were curious about what I had to say. The utility sector and innovators may not always share the same worldview, but it doesn’t mean they can’t work together to solve problems.

Another forum for industry change: SEPA’s National Town Meeting on Demand Response and Smart Grid, July 11-13. Find out more here.

Finally, we must remember that it’s not us vs. them. Utilities, or any incumbent stakeholders, are not the bad guys. Of course, they are self-interested, just like every other individual and organization. They face customer demands, business needs and legal regulatory requirements that constrain what they can do and how quickly they can do it. Innovation can—and sometimes must—work within those constraints.

However, transformational technologies become a reality not by building incremental change upon incremental change, but because someone can imagine a future where things are completely different. For many companies throughout history, the alternative to embracing change has been the broader, existential risk of becoming obsolete.

As a first step, what if together we imagined a future where utilities and innovators work together to define problems and find solutions? A future where change is not at odds with customer needs. Where new business models mean an opportunity, not a risk. And where utilities can evolve into companies that are even stronger and more resilient than they have been for over a hundred years.

This is the vision I like to imagine–not only for the 51st State, but for 21st-century electric grids around the globe. If we reimagine the future we want, we’ll be taking a giant leap toward making it a reality.

Alisa Ferguson is a consultant with XPRIZE Foundation and works with clients to accelerate clean energy deployment. For more information, visit www.alisaferguson.com.

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