September 11, 2020
By Emma Penrod
The aftermath of COVID-19 and social unrest in 2020 could make 2021 a year of unprecedented change and innovation in the power sector, the heads of three large public power companies said during a Wednesday panel organized by the Large Public Power Council and Women's Council on Energy and the Environment.
Some of the major themes this year, including resilience, sustainability and social justice, will continue to dominate energy industry efforts in 2021, executives said. At the same time, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for flexibility, and multiple executives say teleworking is likely here to stay.
“What I've seen previously are mostly changes driven by regulatory policy,” said Jolene Thompson, president and CEO of Ohio-based American Municipal Power. “Today what we're seeing is more driven by what consumers want and what technology has become available."
The panel tapped the heads of Tacoma Power and Austin Energy, along with American Municipal Power, to discuss how the events of 2020 will shape the industry in 2021 and beyond. While they said their overall goals of sustainability, resilience and equity have not changed, they noted that 2020 may change the way they approach them, including by making innovation a priority.
“In my view, the technology changes are more revolutionary than the past 30 years of changes," Thompson said.
While COVID-19 forced Thompson and her fellow panelists to move to a remote workforce, she and the others agreed that remote work is likely here to stay.
“We pushed everyone out of an office over two weeks,” Jackie Flowers, director of Tacoma Public Utilities, said. While it took time for everyone to adjust, “we found real potential for us to incorporate it into our workplace culture. Our employees love it.”
Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy, said the shift to remote work has improved the company's customer relations because the flexibility has improved employee morale.
Thompson concurred that remote work is likely here to stay. "I don't think the new normal is going to look like the old normal," she said.
While COVID-19 has slowed certain projects, the executives said investments in sustainability and innovative new technologies will continue.
Flowers said Tacoma Utilities's plan to achieve its zero-emissions goal by 2045 remains on track, as are plans to make investments in electric vehicles and emerging solutions such as hydrogen fuel.
All three executives expressed particular enthusiasm for energy storage, but they also saw a need for additional innovation to accelerate its adoption.
“As we see energy storage evolve, we're going to see a need for distribution system operators, similar to what we have on the transmission side today,” Sargent said. “There will be a need for some kind of collaboration between those to ensure we maintain the overall reliability of the system.”
They said the civil unrest of 2020 has also spurred them to consider the role of their own organizations in supporting systemic racism, and to consider creative solutions. Flowers said Tacoma Public Utilities has used data to build an “equity index," which revealed that disadvantaged communities have suffered from a lack of infrastructure investment.
“In some cases that has led to cutting corners, in particular for water,” Flowers said. “We're using that data to inform us whether or not we may have impacts to customers in terms of their service lines not being up to snuff.”
Tacoma Public Utilities is developing a program that would make loans and grants available to residents impacted by these funding disparities, she said.
“We would like to be able to tie that to any discriminatory acts that occurred historically, but the state constitution only allows income-based standards,” she said.