A few days ago, I spoke at the Initiate! stage at the European Utility Week 2017. I was there as the Analytics Director of the European Energy Students’ Network to present the early results of our first analytical project. I reflect here about my impressions from the event and my participation.
This is big. That was my first thought entering the European Utility Week 2017. More than 600 exhibitors, 56 utilities, and +12,000 attendees visited the conference. Being so big, it looked to me as a representative sample of the electricity sector.
Another thought came quickly. Was it all they exhibited truly representative of the trends shaping the sector? Or was it instead just a collection of impressive stands and savvy PR management?
Indeed, the number of exhibitors impressed me. But I was particularly shocked by how many buzzwords were printed all around. Every exhibitor big or small offered a novel smart, digital solution. Often coupled with a big data, “consumer-centric” software to operate in a more connected, more renewable grid. NB: consumer-centric not customer-centric.
All these buzzwords did not help to dissipate my doubts.
They all sounded great. The problem, I soon realized, was that very few people seemed to have a clear view of what these terms mean. Of course, neither do I. But realizing this enables us to probe the level of uncertainty the industry finds itself. I will try to explain why I think my ignorant condition is shared by most industry players.
- Utilities feel the pressure to pay attention to their customers. Yet nobody seems to know how to address and benefit from it (or at least not suffer too much). Is it engaging with the customer through online platforms akin to online banking? Is it offering personalized electricity plans? There were some interesting ideas, though I did not perceive a common understanding of what direction to go is. I did notice though a certain angst among some that an outsider may find out earlier and steal their pie. Big names such as Amazon popped up.
- Data, digitization and smart devices are important. Why they are so important is not so clear. Some applications seem ready (e.g. predictive maintenance), while others (e.g. interactions with/among customers) not so much. One person suggested that “there are too many solutions waiting for a problem.” Regardless, everyone is preparing for a smarter grid and hiring data scientists, just in case.
- Distributed energy generation transforms the competition playground. The grid(s) becomes a key strategic focus. It remains unclear who will do what and how it will be monetized though. One speaker worried about how to compete in a free-electricity market. He argued that the source of competitive advantages would come from the skilful operation of (smart) (micro) grids and the provision of energy services. How to build and realize a business model? Not so clear yet.
- Sustainability becomes a strategic choice. Firms showcased their circular economy initiatives. Many embraced the reality of competitive renewable generation, the upcoming challenges of mobility electrification, and the imperative of lowering emissions. These are all great news. Firms are actively engaging in the pursuit of sustainability. What’s more, when talking privately with some people, some were truly committed to this goal, being early adopters and active sponsors of e.g. renewable technologies. Yet despite the good news, I missed clear lines of action. Firms’ initiatives lacked a gravity centre and shared priorities, somehow resulting in a dispersion of efforts.
All these points are worthy of further discussion. All of them (can) bring great news on innovation and sustainability in the electricity sector. They show that some of these trends will do shape the future of the industry, while a big chunk of the buzzwords will just go away as noise.
I am particularly interested though in the last one. After a couple workshops, I realized the industry was using the same green buzzwords I come across in academia. Yet their meaning and practical implications were not any clearer. This might be good. A shared understanding could emerge from the alternative approaches competing in the electricity market. But such organic process is uncertain. It may well bring us to places we do not need or want to go. Researchers are in a good position to help here. We may need to improve how we study (and communicate) what ought to be the industry’s sustainability priorities.
A similar purpose, though unrelated to sustainability, got me presenting at the European Utility Week 2017. I went there to signal the weakest areas for the career development of the future energy professionals. Thanks to the invitation of Sietske Jacobs, who leads the Initiate! project, I presented the work I have carried out in EESN Analytics. Please, find a summary of the presentation at the end of this post.
My colleague Kedar Deshpande, EESN co-director, joined the panel discussion right after my presentation. During the discussion, the industry representatives surprised us by quoting our findings. They highlighted some of their initiatives aligned with our key findings. The industry representatives even came up with ideas on how to approach the weaknesses we pointed to. The many young energy talents attending nodded in approval.
At a conference packed with senior officers, the Initiate! stage was a refreshing space full of diverse young energy talent. Lively interactions between industry leaders and young professionals went on uninterruptedly. I can hardly imagine a better platform for our own work, aimed at connecting energy communities and professionals’ generations.
This experience was greatly encouraging. We had started EESN 16 months earlier with a small core team. That afternoon, we were debating with representatives of some of the largest European utilities. We were discussing how they can improve the career development of energy students and young professionals. And both the industry actors and the young energy professionals seemed to value and agree with our work.
Currently, we are expanding our base of respondents to reinforce the confidence in our findings. We also want to continue the conversation with the industry. We hope to gain some collaborators soon to translate these words into actions.
Thanks for reading,