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Climate Change, Security Issues Demand Electric Utilities Innovate

Renewable energy sources are expanding, electric vehicle ownership is increasing, and the climate continues to change. While energy production facilities are being decentralized, decarbonized, and digitized, transmission and distribution facilities remain hard wired with minimal load control and obsolete technology.

In addition, electric utilities face challenges that make customers question their reliability, including security threats across the country, the yearly possibility of rolling blackouts to prevent wildfires, and excessive peak power costs that often occur during climate change-related severe weather events.

Electric utilities are overdue for innovative updates to their operating practices, infrastructure, and physical security measures. However, innovation assassins are huge players within electric utilities, often shutting down new ideas before they can be properly considered, in favor of maintaining the status quo. It is time for electric utilities to recognize that more of the same is not in their best interest in the future.

Instead, electric utilities should establish a set procedure for reviewing innovative ideas, including consulting subject matter experts and allowing everyone’s voice to be heard, even innovation assassins. Let’s take a closer look at how this can be implemented within electric utilities. We’ll also share how to identify an innovation assassin at work.

Consult Subject Matter Experts

In previous posts, we’ve explored methods of inspiring workers to think innovatively and implementing new ideas effectively. Before innovative concepts can be implemented, subject matter experts from a relevant field should be consulted to provide feedback on the viability of new ideas. The expert can either endorse ideas or share enhancements to improve the idea. This is especially important for changes to critical grid infrastructure.

For example, if electric utilities’ goal is to reduce costs by changing materials, it is vital to ask material scientists for their opinion before making the substitution. If the goal is to reduce costs by changing the manufacturing process, factory managers or even assembly line workers should be consulted before making the change. If the goal is to improve grid security, security experts from other fields should be consulted.

Implement a Procedure for New Ideas

Innovative ideas must be given a fair chance, even when an innovation assassin's first instinct is to shut the idea down. To allow this, every innovation should percolate in an “idea chamber,” where subject matter experts and their peers can review the idea and provide feedback.

Next, electric utilities should establish Ad Hoc Innovation Assessment groups to assess whether each innovation falls into specific categories of improvement:

  1. Simple improvements that should be implemented without hesitation (such as Bronze or Silver ideas, outlined in our last article).

  2. Complex improvements that need to be enhanced with input from subject matter experts before implementation (Gold or Titanium ideas).

  3. Game changers that need strategic development and significant input from subject matter experts before implementation (Titanium or Platinum ideas).

As soon as the initial assessment is completed and a decision to innovate has been made, an innovation leader should be assigned to the project. Ideally this would be the person who proposed the innovation.

Finally, an activity schedule should be established and published. The schedule will outline the ideal timeline and progress goals from subject matter experts’ analysis to implementation. During this process, innovation assassins can research the practices of industry leaders to either overcome or reinforce their objections.

At any stage in the innovation process, everyone should be given time to voice their concerns. This includes innovation assassins, subject matter experts, or others within the electric utility. No one should be allowed to stonewall innovation. Establishing the set process outlined above to assess and respond to innovative ideas should reduce innovation assassins’ ability to obstruct change.

Recognize An Innovation Assassin

When a subject matter expert endorses a change, while a teammate offers a laundry list of rebuttals, the team has come face to face with an innovation assassin.

Innovation assassins are smart, well-intended people who usually do not want to sabotage progress. They just aren’t ready for change because electric utilities have held fast to their way for decades. In comparison, other industries, such as the automotive industry, have an expectation for innovation on an annual basis.

A hallmark of innovation assassins is their inability to see the full picture, instead focusing on one or two specific reasons as to why an innovation is not possible. For example, an innovation leader may propose that grid security be enhanced with more secure substations. They may even provide specific examples of how to create sabotage resilient substations. In response, an innovation assassin will present a list of reasons why enhanced grid security is unnecessary: the grid is secure enough with Reliability Standard CIP-14, enhancing the security at every grid asset will be too expensive, or we are prepared to respond to an incident when it occurs.

This response overlooks the specifics of an innovation leader’s idea. In this scenario, the leader is not proposing that every piece of infrastructure related to the grid be hardened. Instead, they are proposing that selective aspects of substations have enhanced security, and that response plans be improved for when an incident occurs.

However, an innovation assassin often has a hard time seeing the full picture because they cannot move beyond their initial reaction to innovation: not possible.

Work in Harmony with Innovation Assassins

Change is difficult, especially when most team members or managers believe that an existing product or strategy is functional and effective. It is important to question innovation before moving forward with changes, and innovation assassins can provide an important counter perspective to proposed innovations.

However, in the long run, electric utilities will be hindered by listening to innovation assassins and disregarding the ideas of innovation leaders. Instead, embracing new ideas with a set procedure will allow utilities to stay relevant in our ever-changing world.

For more ideas on innovative leadership within electric utilities, or for specifics on the next generation electric power grid, check out our blog. And contact us with your thoughts or questions!

This article was written in collaboration with Prescient's Lead Editor Alyssa Sleva-Horine.

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