Energy in 30: Critical role of load management in the energy transition

Mar 1, 2024

Tune in to Energy in 30, hosted by Joan Collins and David Meisegeier. In this episode, you'll hear from Sally Jacquemin, OSI and AspenTech Business; Sarah Colvin, GE Vernova; and ICF's Chris Najera. The discussion focuses on the crucial role of load management in the energy transition.

Topics in today’s episode include:

  • Changes in customer behavior and in the utility market.
  • Technological advancements impacting load management.
  • Solutions-oriented future developments.

Full transcript below

David: Hi, all. Welcome to "Energy in 30." We'll use the next 30 minutes to explore how utilities and the industry are reacting to forces that are shaping new offerings for customers in order to meet decarbonization goals. If you're a utility manager, consultant, technology provider, or just curious about energy, we hope to push your thinking about the changes that are happening in the energy industry with me, David Meisegeier.

Joan: And me, Joan Collins. David, happy Groundhog's Day.

David: Thank you. I understand we're gonna have an early spring this year.

Joan: Isn't that fabulous?

David: The older I get, the less enamored I am with cold weather. So, yes, I think that's good news.

Joan: Well, today's a special episode for me. It's going to be my last time on the podcast. I'm moving on to a new opportunity outside of ICF. And David, this has just been such a blast doing this with you, and big thanks to all of the guests that we've had on. And I'm so glad that a couple of years ago when I asked you to co-host this with me, you said yes.

David: I am so glad that I said yes too. I'm so unbelievably bummed for myself that you're moving on. Obviously, super thrilled for you. And I know we'll stay in touch and maybe we'll have you on as a guest.

Joan: Hey, there's an idea.

David: Looking forward to seeing what the future brings.

Joan: Me too, wishing you the best. Well, let's get to it. We've got a lot to cover today on this episode. It's our 21st episode of "Energy in 30." And we're delving into the crucial role of load management in the energy transition. And we have two thought leaders on, actually three thought leaders on. We have Sally Jacquemin, who's from OSI and AspenTech Business, and Sarah Colvin from GE Vernova. And we also have our very own colleague, Chris Najera.

David: We are so happy to have you on. And let me give brief bios before we get started. Sally is the vice president and general manager for the power and utilities business at OSI and AspenTech Business. She's an industry leader driving transformative digital solutions to enable the resilient, sustainable, and intelligent grid of the future.

Sarah is the vice president, customer success for grid software at GE Vernova. She spent her last 20 years in the energy industry disrupting the status quo in order to see customers play a pivotal role to the utility control room, building towards a resilient future. And Chris has spent more than 15 years in the utilities space, and at ICF, he leads partnerships focusing on new and existing clean technologies. And he also supports the design and development of residential load management programs for utilities. So, welcome, Sally, Sarah, and Chris.

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

Sally: I'm looking forward to a great conversation. And it's fun to have so many women represented here today.

Joan: I couldn't agree more. And David, wow, that was such a great review of everyone's backgrounds. I'm glad that you did that and not me because there's a lot there. So, I'm just so thrilled to have you all on. We're gonna keep this casual and open-ended. And we've got so much to cover. So, I'm gonna pass this over to Chris, who's gonna kick off our discussion kind of by level-setting on where we've been and why load management is accelerating in terms of its critical role in the energy transition.

Load management’s role in the energy transition

Chris: Thanks, Joan. So, electric utilities are basically going through a major transition here. We're moving from the old-school fossil fuel-heavy systems to greener, smarter grids. And it's not just about swapping fossil fuels for wind or solar. It's about totally rethinking how we get and use energy to kick carbon emissions to the curb and tackle climate change head-on. Back in the day, it was all about burning fossil fuels to keep the lights on with a big focus on keeping the supply steady. But the last 10 years have been a game-changer. We've seen a huge shift to renewables like wind, solar, and hydro, thanks to better tech, which our guests can certainly pontificate on. Cheaper green energy, stricter environmental laws, and everyone wanting a cleaner planet.

But here's where it gets juicy. Renewable energy now accounts for about 20% of the U.S. electricity generation up from just 10% a decade ago. Renewable energy has taken up more room in the U.S. energy mix, but there's a catch. To get to a totally green grid, we need to massively up our storage game to handle the intermittency. And we have to do it in a sophisticated way, which is now possible with advancements in software and artificial intelligence capabilities. Plus, we've gotta get smarter about wind and how we use energy, which is where load management is gonna play a major role in this energy transition. And I'm excited because things are about to get even more interesting. Smart grids, electric vehicles, and next-gen storage like batteries are changing the game in managing energy supply and demand. This stuff is not just cool for the grid. It means we all get to play a part in the energy shift, thanks to tech that's increasingly letting consumers generate and manage their own power.

David: Awesome. That is a good level setting.

Joan: It is.

David: And us in the energy industry, we've been hearing about this for a while. And I'm curious why there's such urgency now. And maybe we can start with Sally. What are your thoughts there?

Sally: Sure. Well, if you look at North America, you know, our electric grid, you know, really only started in the early 1900s. It's about 100 years old, which is, you know, very, very new. It's a very young industry. And the current electric grid, as we know it, really was built out in the '60s and '70s. And the engineers that built out the grid overbuilt it for capacity reasons. And that's been great. We've had no problems with capacity growth until, like Chris said, you know, really recently, the last 10, 20 years where we're starting to see that the electric infrastructure age. We have that aging infrastructure equipment that still might be 100 years old in some places, as well as now we're at capacity of the grid in places. And the grid wasn't designed originally for this two-way flow of energy from renewables and grid-edge devices.

So, we're seeing a number of factors converge into what's becoming a perfect storm causing this transformation. You have aging infrastructure, you have an increase of renewables, you have a grid that's at capacity. And all of these things combined are really causing this transformative effect in the industry. Whereas maybe 5, 10, 20 years ago, load management wasn't a big topic or maybe there wasn't a huge business case around it because the utility didn't have a capacity problem. But now that there is a capacity problem and there's not enough infrastructure and support for that, you know, load management is becoming a more critical tool for utilities to maintain the balance and reliability of the overall grid.

David: And it's probably a cheaper way of doing it too. I would imagine when you look at the cost of storage at least today, you look at the cost of building out new infrastructure, it seems that load management would be a cheaper alternative. I don't know. Sarah, do you see it that way?

Changes in customer behavior and in the utility market

Sarah: Yeah, I agree. And I think Sally articulated it so well, what's happening within the industry, what's happening from a grid infrastructure perspective. I think the complement to that is, like, the change in consumer and mass market awareness, adoption of technologies. And if you look at what's happening with climate change, weather-related events, the impacts, people I think for the first time are really thinking about what does electricity supply look like? What importance does decarbonization have? And that's putting pressure on utilities to then also augment generation supply that add to that complexity. You also have the adoption of technology that impacts the grid where we've never seen that before. So, as utilities, load management was, you know, buying a device, sending a truck out, installing it, and it was a utility-owned device. Now you have this proliferation of DERs based on consumers' buying habits, not necessarily the push of a utility. And so the confluence of those two things, the grid infrastructure and consumer behaviors awareness, it really is coming together and I think that's what's creating the urgency.

Sally: Well, and in addition to that, you know, it's changing the whole utility business model. A consumer just was at the end of the line, someone that took energy off, you know, kind of a sink at the end of the line that they knew nothing about, they didn't really engage with. You just paid your bill at the end of every month. Now, you know, with social media, with all the grid-edge devices, the Internet of Things, consumers are way more knowledgeable and enabled at the grid. And that's making the utility now start to think about "How do I engage with consumers? How do I offer them the programs and capabilities so that I retain my business and I grow my business?" They're worried about, you know, ensuring that they have their customer base grow with them in the years to come.

Joan: I was gonna introduce the concept of technology advancements and I was thinking that might be a good segue. Is there anything exciting on anyone's radar that you'd like to talk about in terms of technological advancements?

Technological advancements impacting load management

Sally: Gosh. We probably need more than 30 minutes for that question. I am just thrilled to be in this industry at this point in time because I just feel like there is so many transformative technologies that are available today in the space that in 10 or 20 years we're not going to recognize the electric utility industry anymore. For example, we mentioned some of the DERs, the electric vehicle integration, and consumer devices such as in-home thermostats. But on the other side of it, I mean, we still work with utilities that are filling out pen and paper switch orders, pen and paper outages. When there's an electric outage, it gets radioed in, called in, puts on a pen and paper, piece of paper, gets radioed out to a field crew to go work on.

There are many utilities still in North America that are leveraging manual processes today to just manage general operations of the grid, let alone think about enabling some of the advanced technology at the grid edge or with consumer engagement. So, the Department of Energy's funding for the IIJA and some of the other funding mechanisms that are pumping billions of dollars into the industry right now couldn't be more needed across from the utility control room all the way down to engaging with the end consumer.

Sarah: Software is definitely, I think, the game-changer in this space. And the decisions, the complexity, the speed at which decisions have to be made to orchestrate the grid in the future, to find that balance, to build that resiliency, you can't do that with humans. And it's gonna require change management. You're gonna have less power systems engineers sitting in a control room. You're gonna have software developers. You're gonna have folks writing lines of code in real time, updating, transforming how decisions are made because you're gonna have to balance that supply, what's happening, the demand, and being able to pull in and call on those DER resources or spin up additional generation or some change happens to, you know, the speed at which the wind is blowing and you have to compensate for that in such short, fast turnaround. It's gonna require software to really pull all of that together and make those decisions at the right speed to provide resiliency.

Sally: Let me just tie that back to what I said earlier about the disruptive factors coming together in the industry. With the aging infrastructure, a lot of utilities are upgrading their electrical infrastructure. A lot of money is going into the transmission grid and substation equipment, as well as just assets on the grid, you know, solar inverters, batteries, and so forth. All of this equipment is enabling the utility to have lots and lots more assets on the grid. What do new more assets on the grid provide more data? So, now the utility has more and more assets to manage, more and more data coming back, and they have to sort through that data and figure out what is actionable and how to take action off that data.

So, like what Sarah said, it's about, you know, the historical systems weren't set up, weren't designed to manage that throughput of data and to have the processing power to manage and process that much data coming in and turn that into actionable information. So, it's causing all the...The software solutions have to be smarter. They have to manage more, you know, volumes of data, and it has to do that intelligently to remove the noise to get to the root problem and then solve that, do the optimization to solve it and say, "You should be discharging this battery over here," or, you know, "We're forecasting for something bad to happen on this side of the grid, so we need to take corrective action." So, it's really going to really need advanced software in multiple different disciplines of the utility.

Sarah: The other part that I think is gonna be really interesting with the data that you're talking about is how we can better design programs to meet the needs locally to a substation, a neighborhood, a transformer. We start pulling that data in, right? You've got this network model, you can do simulations. The planning departments in these, you know, 30-year projections of what a resource adequacy plan looks like, that is gonna fundamentally change because you're able to take that in and look at what the conditions on the grid could be, you know, an hour, a day, 10 years out with all kinds of modeling and simulation.

And what we can do is take that and better design the programs. And hopefully, we start to transition so that when we're doing load management, it's not, you know, one button across the entire service territory because it's 85 degrees and the sun is shining. We can get really targeted about how we use that flexible load, which, you know, contributes to a better customer experience, it's better for ratepayers because you're actually paying customers for what they're delivering when you need it, not sort of this, you know, one-size-fits-all kind of program that we've traditionally seen in the space.

David: It's an amazing future that you guys are talking about. And one of the things that I also hear in it is it sounds daunting. So, talk to me about, you know, how hard is this gonna be? I mean, because both Sally and Sarah, your companies, and not to deep dive on this, but your companies are working on solutions today to do this. And so I know that on one hand, you've got little bits and pieces of solutions, if you will, compared to what we need globally across the country. How doable is it to scale what you guys are doing to what we need? Like, do we still...

Sally: Are you asking for silver bullets, David?

Solutions-oriented future developments

David: I'm asking, like, is there still a lot of development? Are we still in a very much learning and growing mode and we have a lot more development that needs to do or do we have the solutions and we just need to scale? I guess that's one.

Sarah: I think the pieces are there. And I think really what needs to happen is for companies to figure out how to show up better as partners instead of being, you know, siloed vendors because it's gonna take the DER manufacturers partnering with an edge DERMs provider who's looking at what's happening at a grid DERMs level, who's then feeding that into what's happening at the grid software side of, you know, transmission and distribution. And so there's a role for everyone to play. And if we're so focused on just the piece that we're doing or not looking across the industry to say, "How do we move this together as a whole?"

I mean, this is a really incredible space. We work with customers who are not competitors to each other. And that's a really unique part of this energy industry. And so how do we leverage that collective knowledge? How do we bring everyone to the table to sort of collectively solve this? Because there is no one who's both an in-home device and managing the transmission network. So, how do we have these conversations and partner together to bring the pieces, to build the story, to have the kind of acceleration we need to move this industry forward? And I think that is gonna be one of the critical pieces in this that will get us there faster than trying to go alone.

Sally: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, it's a collaboration. I think we've already seen a lot of good collaboration. At the end of the day, it's kind of a small industry, we all know each other. But I think that also, you know, you asked a question about, is the technology available? I do think, like Sarah said, a lot of the technology is available today and not being used to the fullest extent it could be. Okay? It can be complex to work with a utility, which is in many cases a government-regulated organization. It's slow-moving. It's hard for them to make a rate case, get funding approved, you know, get the resources to implement some of these technologies. These are big programs that can be, you know, very costly and take many years to implement.

So, utilities really need to be moving now. It's for planning for what they need in 10 years. And so there's a lot of technology available today, but, you know, also the technology vendors, I mean, we know we have more work to do. We know we're talking to our customers and seeing that there are certain parts of the world that are getting to points where they're 100% fed by renewables. Just think about that for a minute. A grid that on a Sunday afternoon is 100% fed by renewables and you no longer need your firm-rotating generation except for the inertia on the grid. So, it's causing massive challenges in certain progressive parts of the world and we need to take those lessons and really, you know, work double time in our technology so that when the rest of the world catches up to the leaders towards the renewable transition, you know, we're ready to go. So, we're trying to take those lessons today. We're trying to build that into our portfolio so that we're ready to support the challenges that we anticipate in the next, you know, 3, 5, 10 years.

Joan: There's so much that we could continue to get into, I mean, in terms of regulatory influences.

Sarah: Such a big one.

Joan: So much.

David: Don't go to the last question yet, Joan. I have one more.

Joan: It's 30 minutes, but okay, David, you get one. You get one and then we're gonna turn it to Chris, Sally, and Sarah to ask the big question.

David: Yeah. I had a question for Chris. And from the partnership perspective, what do you see? You're spanning. Sarah talked about the grid-edge devices, the DERM platforms, you got the EV chargers. What are your thoughts from the partner perspective?

A partnership perspective on load management

Chris: From the partner perspective, I think, you know, my impression with the technology that's available to handle load management, in the past, I think there were a lot of kind of unique offerings that different vendors were bringing to the table. But we've seen a demand for standardization and consistency, standard protocols, etc. And so what that's done in many ways is commoditized these services. And I think now, you know, in the technology space, it's the commoditized service plus the additional value-add that the vendors are bringing back to the table. And I think that's really, you know, a key selling point and I think that's, you know, maybe why Sarah alluded to the fact that, yeah, we need to look at it more from a partnership model, less from an individual actor model in this space for the transition to happen effectively.

David: That makes perfect sense. All right, Joan.

Joan: Okay, David, you got it in.

David: I yield the floor.

Joan: All right. Well, we're gonna ask this last great question, which is, if you could do one thing to change the industry, no limits, what would you do? And I think maybe we'll go Sally, Chris, and then end with Sarah.

Sally: Oh my goodness. One thing. I think that there's so much great technology. And as a software vendor we're always trying to develop more features and functionality. If I could wave my magic wand, I would hire another army of software developers or partner with folks to continue to develop the software that we need in the industry. I think that, like any industry, utilities, vendors, partners, we're all in need of resources and bodies and people that know this industry and are qualified and have the skill sets, whether that's an engineer or an electrician to a software developer.

So, I think, we and our utility customers and us, we couldn't say enough to encourage people to go into the electric utility industry, the energy industry, engineering fields, electrician, technical schools. We need smart people in this industry and the more we can encourage people worldwide to go into this, we're gonna need you. So, that would be my final call-out here to folks listening.

Joan: Well said. Well said, Sally. Thank you so much. And Chris.

Chris: Yeah. So, from our discussion today, it's very clear that load management is the linchpin in the energy transition, but we're not at this alone, right? We look globally, Europe's aggressive push towards renewables with countries like Germany and Denmark leading in wind and solar integration shows the power of policy and innovation with people working hand in hand. And meanwhile, I think Australia's world-leading rooftop solar penetration offers a blueprint for maximizing distributed energy resources. So, these examples not just inspire, but offer some very concrete lessons. Robust policies, consumer engagement, and tech adoption can accelerate the shift to sustainable grid. So, if I could wave my magic wand, incorporating these insights will be a game-changer driving us toward the cleaner, more efficient, and resilient energy future that we've discussed today.

Joan: Oh, I like that magic wand.

David: High five to that. Yep.

Joan: Absolutely. All right, Sarah, bring it home.

Sarah: All right. So, mine is doable. You can leave this podcast and go and make this happen. And I'm telling you, it's gonna be transformational. You need to pick a champion from every department within the utility and lock them in a boardroom to understand what each other do, what their metrics for success are, what are the important components of the system, and have that conversation. I started my career doing load management, like pager-based thermostats, and I would go out and reprogram them or check on them and come back to the office and run a demand response event. And I'd run to the control room and they're like, "Yeah, no, we didn't see a thing. We didn't notice anything."

And the changes are happening, right? It's becoming impactful. It can't be ignored. And so the coordination inside of the utility between the customer experience, the folks doing not just load management, but energy efficiency, weatherization, all of these programs play such a key role to roll up to this more resilient grid. And then we need to talk about it with planning. We need to talk about it with distribution engineers. We need to talk about it with the folks running the transmission network so that the story and the goal and everything that they're working towards becomes aligned and the role that everyone plays within their department becomes really clear. And you start building, you know, RFPs around that. You start making business decisions around that. You make hiring decisions around that. And you really have a strategy that's so comprehensive that everyone is going in the same direction to achieve those decarbonization goals.

David: Yeah. We got some good wishes.

Joan: I know. Those were fantastic.

David: Another high-five. I'm just speechless. I mean, that's perfect. I love it. I love it. Well, Sally, Sarah, Chris, thank you all for being on. It's been a pleasure.

Sarah: Thank you.

Chris: Thank you.

Sarah: It's been a great conversation.

Joan: Yeah.

David: And if you've enjoyed this conversation as much as we have, and I think you can tell we've just totally been enthralled with it, let a friend know, let a colleague know. It's one of the best ways for folks to learn more about this podcast. And you can like this podcast and subscribe to it. We'd appreciate that. Before I turn it over to Joan, I just wanna say one more time, it's been a real honor working with you side by side, not just on this podcast, but at ICF and on the work that we do. And I'm gonna miss you dearly. But thank God you're just a phone call away and you're not getting away from me so fast. So, best of luck, and thanks for all the memories.

Joan: Oh, thank you, David. You're gonna get me all choked up. Thank you so much. It has been an absolute delight, enjoyed working with you and doing this podcast with you for the two-year period of time. We've just had so much fun, so many great conversations behind the scenes and during the podcast and post-podcast. And we sure thank all of our listeners for your continued interest. And with that said, now, David, I'm handing the sign-off over to you.

David: Wow. And here's to our next "Energy in 30."

Meet the authors
  1. David Meisegeier, Vice President, Finance and Smart Homes Programs

    David helps innovate customer-centric energy programs that meet utilities’ current and future needs, with nearly 30 years of experience in the energy industry. View bio

  2. Chris Najera, Lead, Energy Partnerships and Alliances

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