The market penetration of rooftop solar shoots up to over 1 percent, leading to billions of dollars in lost revenue. Proactive building-code developers rapidly raise baselines, making demand-side management (DSM) program goals harder to meet. New companies arise, offering no-money-down financing for photovoltaic panel installations. Dozens of new electric-vehicle (EV) models come onto the market, potentially stressing distribution circuits. Lithium-ion batteries drop in price, bringing several storage applications that have long been out of reach much closer to economic feasibility. Load growth stalls out exactly when regulators and the federal government demand that utilities find new ways of generating, distributing, and selling power. To our knowledge, the utility sector has never faced this volume of coincidental threats, opportunities, and challenges.

Business writers and college professors like to refer to these sorts of trends as market disruption, and many utilities are scrambling to respond. Though not necessarily leading the charge, utilities’ technology analysis groups are feeling the heat. These departments typically perform analyses to support their companies’ work in the areas of emerging technology (ET), program design and implementation, customer support, marketing, and program evaluation. They analyze building management, demand-response, rooftop solar, natural gas generation, building-scale storage, and EV technologies.

To learn how these technology analysis departments are adapting to disruptive forces and opportunities, we interviewed eight industry leaders:

  • Dave Bisbee, Sacramento Municipal Utility District
  • Phil Tornelli, FPL
  • Tom Coughlin, National Grid
  • George Malek, ComEd
  • Vicki Kuo, Con Edison
  • Russell Shaver, Austin Energy
  • Peter Turnbull, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
  • Ryan Fedie, Bonneville Power Administration

Some of these groups are cutting down their ET efforts to focus on less-expensive areas of efficiency programming. Indeed, many expressed disappointment with the widget-based DSM model, which relies on direct incentives for installing specific technologies. Instead, these leaders are actively looking for alternatives. Nearly all interviewees are changing the mix of technologies their analysts study. The majority of our respondents are increasing their focus on the non-energy benefits of energy technologies as a means to more effectively market to customers. Several expressed the goal of getting customers to see their utilities as problem-solvers.

Despite disruption to their activities, most of our respondents are optimistic about the future. They talked about the opportunities that such disruption presents to their companies, and they’re confident that new technologies will enable their organizations to benefit from those opportunities. For these companies, it seems likely that technology analysts will be playing an important role for many years to come.

Based on these interviews, we published the E Source report Utilities in an Age of Disruption: A Survey of How DSM Technology Departments Are Responding to Industry Changes. If you are a member of our E Source Technology Assessment Service, and want to learn more about how utility DSM technology analysis departments are responding, or share how your organization is doing so, please register for our Utilities in an Age of Disruption Leaders Group Call on December 9 at 2:00 EST/11:00 a.m. PST. We’ll also feature a panel of industry experts, including:

  • Thomas Coughlin, Manager, Technical Strategy & Policy, National Grid
  • Tom Lienhard, Chief Energy Efficiency Engineer, Avista Utilities

For more information about attending this event, please email us or call 1-800-ESOURCE (1-800-376-8723).

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Contributing Authors

Board Member, Senior Fellow

Jay Stein is focused on expertise development, research skills development, quality control, new product development, and technology assessment....