Modernize or Get Left Behind: Revolutionizing our Utilities Future (Part Three)

Fueling Product Innovation for Grid Modernization

Electricity is the driving force behind the intricate tapestry of our lives – it ignites a powerful spark that illuminates our homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and smart technologies -- dramatically influencing the way we live, work, play, and connect.

While our nation’s electric grid was an engineering marvel of the past century, the rapid pace of technological and socio-economic innovation has caused the existing electrical infrastructure to age with increased velocity. It was not designed to meet the demands of our digitally-driven world.

So how can utilities keep the lights on and pioneer our modernized, digitized future? By transitioning away from conventional operating models and acquiring a new technology-savvy mindset (e.g., digitally-enabled and sustainable energy provisioning strategies, data visualizations, smart meters, microgrids, advanced analytics, product innovations, etc.), while galvanizing resources to swiftly adapt to evolving consumer expectations. They must make strategic investments to modernize the electric grid today or risk getting left in the dark tomorrow.

In the last installment of our utilities series, we’ll unpack how, if executed successfully, grid modernization has the power to lift previously unbreakable barriers to communication and pave the way for groundbreaking energy delivery models - setting the stage for unprecedented new levels of electric security, reliability, availability, resiliency, and operational efficiency.

Keeping Pace with Emerging Energy Sources

The digital renaissance has created a massive transformation in the utilities industry, as modern and eco-friendly energy sources heat up with mass fanfare and capture the bulk of the market, vendor, and consumer mindshare. Simultaneously, the proliferation of smart home automation, electric vehicles, and distributed energy systems (e.g., rooftop solar, wind energy, smart thermostats, battery storage, power buy-back, etc.) have fostered a steady drumbeat of innovation at the grid edge. To complicate matters, the rise of renewables has allowed mother nature to seize control of electricity production. While nationwide, decarbonization legislation has made coal, fossil fuels, natural gas, and other conventional utility methods fade into irrelevance.

This industry disruption has empowered consumers with an always-on, anytime, anywhere access to connectivity and energy like the world has never seen before. Moreover, consumers are demanding the promise of unlimited power potential – even if keeping the lights on translates to an increase in their utility bills. This disruption is compounded by the widespread popularity and adoption of home-based solar panels - with solar installations in the U.S. expected to almost double by the year 2022. In perspective, a sunny day in California typically produces over 10,000 megawatts of solar energy – which is enough power to energize and illuminate the city of Seattle 10 times over.

While utilities may be able to buy back excess energy from customers, their existing infrastructures may not be equipped to accommodate. The electric grid was traditionally designed to deliver low cost, reliable power, yet it wasn’t built with the discipline needed to bring cutting-edge products, ideas, and innovations to market at the pace consumers crave. What was once the fringe domain of eco-enthusiasts has now become mainstream, yet the utilities industry lacks the internal direction needed to meet intensifying energy demands and consumer experience standards.

To adapt to rapidly evolving energy consumption channels, patterns, and trends, utilities organizations must revolutionize how they do business. They must reinvigorate their existing product portfolio, integrate new technologies, analyze large quantities of data from the grid to the consumer, and launch innovations to foster two-way communication across multiple transmission lines effectively. They must do this all while staying laser-focused on their north star mission: an unwavering commitment to powering our world, reliably and resiliently.

Delivering Value to the Modern Utility

At North Highland, we partner with utilities leaders to prioritize and design grid modernization projects with encroaching energy sources and consumer preferences in mind. We serve as a critical extension of their team, providing actionable recommendations for project prioritization while collaborating closely with internal experts and a large ecosystem of vendors to foster a “one team” mindset. Our propensity for a bias towards action brings to bear a mindset of not only planned delivery but also executed delivery. This mindset, paired with an iterative and dynamic approach to innovation, ensures the implementation process is executed flawlessly – at every stage of the product development journey. And, believing that everything begins and ends with people, we focus on continuously empowering employees in the utilities industry to build the capability needed to carry strategy forward in the long-term.

Putting our expertise into action, we recently joined forces with one of the nation’s largest power and transmission wholesalers to reenergize their “distributed energy resources” team and effectively bring new products to market. Given new technology migrations associated with grid modernization require massive system consolidations, we assessed the current capability gaps and identified the right technical experts needed to manage shifting energy demands and business imperatives quickly and efficiently. This assessment included testing and evaluating electric water heaters, ensuring large lithium-ion batteries were deployed and controlled by operations centers, ensuring contracts were solidified with steel, pulp, and paper mills to adjust their power consumption to support grid stability, and preparing executives for meetings with retail utilities and environmental advocacy groups. Our client declared they were “ready to commercialize.”

In a similar scenario, North Highland trained existing employees at a leading electric power holding company in agile ways of working. This agile approach included upskilling traditional roles, assembling a specialized team of scrum masters and agile coaches, and retiring waterfall methods to ensure speed to delivery throughout the product development process – from inception, execution, and implementation. Given our intimate understanding of the nuances associated with product development, combined with our utilities industry expertise, we designed a customized distributed management system in a scaled agile fashion. Together, we helped them transform their operations from waterfall to agile delivery.

Energizing Innovation on a Global Scale

Now more than ever, utilities organizations must prepare, predict, and adapt to an increasingly volatile environmental landscape and evolving consumer energy demands, to compete effectively with industry players vying for market dominance.

A purposeful and intentional product and service innovation, change management, and implementation strategy will successfully modernize the electric grid and ensure utilities organizations provide consumers with up-to-the-minute, anytime, anywhere energy access and insight they demand – ultimately reducing operating costs, increasing business resiliency and efficiency, and igniting transformative environmental change on a global scale.

For more insights into revolutionizing the industry's future, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.