Capturing Value from Emerging Tech Is Aiding a Culture Change in Utilities

Interview with Cameron Freberg, Utility Strategist, Emerging Tech Team at Austin Energy

How can a utility company steward meaningful change in its service territory, while also providing a beachhead for the whole world to replicate and scale the value captured from emerging technology?

To help answer this question, I looked to my own backyard. Recently, Austin Energy has been at the pulse of some of the biggest changes in the utility sector—winning one of only seven SHINES grants, and submitting the City of Austin’s bid for the US Department of Transportation’s $40–50M national Smart Cities Challenge.

But that is nothing new—Green Building and ECAD, electrical Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), and large-scale and distributed renewables and electric vehicle initiatives all started at Austin Energy. That kind of well-rounded evolution doesn’t happen in a silo. Indeed, what’s unique about this perpetual ratcheting up of performance is that it takes a whole utility, and all of its people power to really support the region and the nation as an example of collaboration and human ingenuity in the utility space.

I asked Cameron Freberg, an extremely busy utility strategist—a “doer” rather than a communications staffer—to sit down and talk with me about some of the big issues in emerging tech, how Austin Energy does things, and its role in shaping the future of the energy sector.

DJ: Austin Energy has a long history of innovation in energy efficiency, demand response, renewables, AMI, and EVs. AE developed its Emerging Technology & EV team in the past six years. How is emerging tech getting along within your utility? Many people want to knowis it a culture fit?

CF: Austin Energy did develop an Electric Vehicles & Emerging technologies team in 2011, but the innovations that we have achieved as an organization go much farther back. As with any organization, emerging technology can present both excitement and apprehension. We have been heavily involved in the opportunities for energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, and renewable energy.

I think that the culture in the utilities industry is traditionally pretty old school with a sole focus on keeping the lights on and doing it cost-effectively. Now utilities have a larger focus on environmental quality, customer interactions, and being a relied-upon source for guidance on new technology. It is necessary to keep the experienced working with the younger generation so that the focus of providing reliable and cost-effective service is not lost while trying to innovate and not sit idly by when new opportunities to utilize technologies emerge. At Austin Energy we have a fantastic blend of experienced and younger workers, which keeps us driving forward and eager to see what is the next big breakthrough that we can adopt.

DJ: What are you working on that you are most excited about? How do you incorporate collaboration into that?  

CF: One of the most exciting things that we are working on at Austin Energy is the Austin SHINES initiative through a US Department of Energy grant initiative. To be concise, we are creating a pathway to get to the high penetration of renewable energy through the incorporation of energy storage and smart inverters paired with solar PV. Austin SHINES pairs battery storage with both commercial and residential PV, and also includes two grid scale batteries that are in close proximity to high concentrations of solar PV.

The SHINES project not only requires groups within the utility to work together who might not have had as much interaction in the past, but requires the utility to work with the community, private industry, academia, and leaders in manufacturing and industry. In order to make this project a win for all parties involved and provide a meaningful outcome that can change the potential for renewable energy in the U.S., collaboration and innovative thinking need to be an inherent part of the project.

DJ: How is access to data tied to this, now and in the future?

CF: Everything is becoming smarter, and that includes the electric grid. The most interesting element of IoT and energy is actually the interactions that customers are now having with their own energy usage.

Just look at what devices like the Fitbit are doing to make something as pedestrian as walking (pun intended) interesting. The ability to shame or reward the consumer based on their own data and is really driving behavior, and the energy sector is no exception. An interesting example of this we are starting to see is within the transportation sector and with electric vehicles. These new “mpg wars” that EV drivers are starting to get into has now become a competitive game trying to outdo one another and is just another example of how data can drive behavior in a positive way.

DJ: What are the most important skills in this new realm?

CF: So often I have heard about organizations not needing to worry about certain technologies because they “just aren’t there yet.” That can set an organization up for being reactive to technology and not having things in place for when the industry and the community start adopting. We strive to have our back-end processes and core business functions ready for when new technologies hit the market. Our population here in Austin helps to drive that as well. Having a large number of early adopters and innovators in our area reinforces the need for us as a utility to constantly evolve.

Although emerging technologies can be great when standing alone, it is ultimately the people who have to find a solution to introducing them into an organization’s operations. This can be easily dismissed by some because “that is not the way it has always been done.” Creativity and finding ways to blend processes and technology are essential to keep the needle moving.

FULL DISCLAIMER: I have worked for Austin Energy twice, I have worked for a technology company serving Austin Energy once, and I have collaborated with Austin Energy as an informal advisor, a city council staffer, and most recently as president at an energy research firm.