Three start-up owners from OhmConnect, ProsumerGrid and UtilityAPI and one representative from PG&E sat side by side on a panel called “The Establishment and the Disruptors” at Intersolar North America on July 11. Moderator Emily Kirsch, CEO of Powerhouse, explained that they chose to use the word “and” instead of “vs” because they wanted to talk about the two entities working together.
The discussion began amicably, with each acknowledging the important role of the other. Daniel Roesler, co-founder & CEO of UtilityAPI, an API that automatically downloads bill and usage data from electric utilities, said, “Utilities aren’t going away, DERs aren’t going away, so they’re going to need to talk to each other.”
Dan Halperin, director of corporate strategy at PG&E, called himself the “representative dinosaur,” but insisted that PG&E’s clean energy mission sets it apart from other utilities. He acknowledged that utilities must evolve with the changing technological times, and said the days of the vertically integrated utility that handles every aspect of the energy chain are numbered.
Kirsch then said it was time to “take the gloves off” and get into what the audience came here for. She asked the group to discuss the biggest issues they see with the other side.
Roesler said he’s frustrated with utilities dragging their feet on new technologies and making decisions without considering the customers.
“For the love of God, hire somebody and have them show up and talk to us,” Roesler said. “You have to talk to your users.”
Halperin told the group the reason utilities can be slow-moving is because they must analyze the long-term effects of every investment decision. To try and speed things up, PG&E implements pilot programs to test emerging tools and software.
“It provides a clearer pathway for us to scale up to our 5 million customers,” Halperin said.
Another division between the groups concerned cyber security.
John Anderson, director of energy markets at OhmConnect, an app that pays users to use less dirty electricity, said utilities should use their wealth of data not to exclusively promote their own products, but to show customers all their options. He said there is a “data asymmetry” between utilities and third parties, and a solution to the problem would be for utilities to share customer data with third parties. He acknowledged that wouldn’t be feasible due to privacy concerns.
An attendee who works for Duke Energy raised his hand and asked if the start-ups understood the cybersecurity requirements for utilities working with third-party software providers. The start-up representatives said it was on the forefront of their minds during development, and that their goal is to find the right balance between privacy and streamlined processes.
Some attendees may have come to the event hoping for a WWE wrestling match, but instead of chairs flying, the panel thoughtfully debated different viewpoints on data sharing and technology adoption between the new and old schools.