It’s a great time to be working on innovation in the power sector. Technology advancements that were once thought to be fringe (to the sector), are now coming mainstream. Utilities are starting to develop their solar panel deployment strategies as the price of solar continues to plummet (image below), the ‘wait and see approach’ that was prevalent in 2016 due to political uncertainty is now giving way to ‘what projects can we deploy’ in 2017. And of course the upstarts, Tesla et al, are ramping up their offensive against the traditional utility with announcements of solar roofs and new gigafactories. It’s feeling like the disrupted (utilities) might finally be waking up to the inevitability of disruption.
But what we are missing in all this hype is how the true disruptions will only happen when we shift attention from a purely business-model-focused industry to a customer-centric approach to business. And by customer I mean the people (customers and employees) who interact with this industry every single day. It doesn’t even require a need to look for technologies beyond what we have at our disposal now. The industry just needs to shift its focus by saying ‘how can we delight our people?’ Because, as we are finding out from Jeff Bezos and co, when you place crazy emphasis on delighting people and serving their true needs (with empathy), the money will surely follow. Below are three customer-centric business models, utilizing the technologies we have today, that will play a big part in the near and far future of the utility industry.
Since I use two examples of VR/AR above, I’ll dive a bit deeper into VR/AR and its impact on the utility industry. In whatever form you’ve experienced or seen Virtual Reality (VR), the basic premise is computer technology that is specifically developed to alter sensory perception. Fully altered sensory perception is known as virtual reality (VR). Partially altered sensory perception, say with images overlaid on what you can actually see as was the case with Google Glasses, is called augmented reality (AR). When the viewer can interact with the images overlaid on reality, this is known as mixed reality (MR). In any of these three cases, human beings react emotionally, physiologically and intellectually to the virtual imagery that is perceived through these computers. The promise of VR and AR has been long coming with several failures that have jaded the market to their true potential. Cabin simulators, developed by Thomas Furness in the 1970s, can be considered the first version of virtual reality that successfully found commercial applications. The pilots did not for one moment forget that they were in a simulation, even though the experience was immersive. In 1995 Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, which gave wearers headaches from both the poor quality of the imagery and the size of the device. But with the dawn of supercomputing and the miniaturization of computers, the promise of truly immersive digital experiences that mimic reality can now be fulfilled.
Immersive virtual reality systems use a combination of movement and position sensors, along with supercomputing power and software, to fool the wearer in three dimensions of depth, perception and dimension.
The use of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality to provide training and simulations will enable knowledge transfer and retention to curb the problem of an aging workforce before it becomes a catastrophic issue for the industry. (55% of the utility workforce will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years.) Similar to what was possible through flight simulators, utilities can upload their systems, processes and plans into a virtual reality system and train new employees in the engineering required to, for example, fix a gas turbine. Current methods of training, some of which I witnessed on a trip to northern Illinois a few years ago, involve simulations that, while just adequate, can be augmented. These new technologies can provide and capture enough data to embed the true experience into the understanding that new employees will need to ensure a stable and reliable electricity supply, even as tens of thousands of veteran staff start to leave the workforce.
There is a need to focus on the people involved here, and not the business models. I wish I could say this in a much stronger way. When we as an industry serve the customers and employees the money will surely come.
If you liked this you should check out ’10 Startup Lessons from 40 Books I read in 2017', ‘9 Books To Boost Your Understanding of Technology Systems’ and my book 40 Semi-Obvious Startup Lessons.
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