Plug and Play’s Payal Patel, Director of Corporate Partnerships, Energy & Sustainability, hosted a webinar on innovation in the energy sector. VECKTA is pleased to have been a part of the Plug and Play innovation incubator.
There will be a high level of innovation in the U.S. energy industry over the next couple of decades as the three megatrends of decarbonization, decentralization and digitization are pursued. There will also be many challenges and the need to transform the workforce, an expert panel said.
The “three Ds,” will be an area of focus for electricity grid planning in coming decades, requiring new approaches to doing business and training of a new, younger energy industry workforce more focused on the digital world than the physical, the panelists said during a Dec. 16 online discussion, part of the DISTRIBUTECH+ Series.
“I think the best and brightest minds over the next twenty years are going to work in this space, because the challenge of decarbonizing the [energy] eco-system is a major challenge that is worth it and it’s interesting,” Brock Smith, Managing Director at Evergy Ventures, said. The industry is progressing in new areas of technology, but this process should be done in a way to elevate the innovation, including “open innovation” in which research and development is shared, rather than kept secret between different labs and corporations, he said.
The three Ds cannot be viewed separately, Smith said—for example there is a need for digitization to control decentralized energy systems and to manage the intermittent nature of new renewables being added to decarbonize the grid such as wind or solar, that are not dispatchable.
Digitization is already happening with smart meters, advanced metering infrastructure and more gathering of customer data, with data being a very important element of optimizing the system going forward, according to Jatinder Singh, VP of Digital and Data Transformation at CPS Energy.
“I think there is a lot of interdependence for these topics,” Singh said, noting that decentralized energy concepts such as community solar produces energy in a cleaner way, overlapping with the goal of decarbonization. Advanced metering infrastructure such as smart meters allows customers to adjust their usage in real-time, such as commercial and industrial customers that use the data to optimize their usage.
This allows end users to have more control over their energy usage, although residential, commercial and industrial customers are not the same in their needs, Singh said. The incoming presidential administration is likely to enact new policy changes to give policy direction in the decarbonization space, where digitization has many opportunities. There has also been much collection of customer data in recent years, but “we have struggled to take that data and make useful applications out of it,” he said.
There is also a workforce change and knowledge transfer happening in the utility industry, which has traditionally been somewhat siloed from other industries, with a stable, long-term career path and a relatively aged workforce. There will be a lot of turnover in the next 10 to 15 years and new technology that will require workers, many with different priorities from older workers, such as expecting a sense of mission in their work and their employers. According to research, the most prominent job that should show up in the industry in coming years is “digital architect,” according to Smith.
“The tech sector is becoming every sector . . .” Alan Bates, New Ventures Manager at Alabama Power, said during the discussion. “Digitization is just happening,” he said, adding there has been a renewed emphasis around coders, developers, and software architects, especially the areas of cyber security and customer data protection. He added that in coming decades, grid security is going to be happening more on a digital front than on a physical security front.
Other pressures on the industry are hiring new tech talent while providing competitive salaries and dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, all signs of what’s to come as the grid gets cleaner, less centralized, and more digitized.