A fireside chat, complete with virtual fireplace, kicked off the sold-out GTM Grid Edge Live event in San Diego this week.

Moderator Shayle Kann, SVP at GTM Research, grilled Mark Ferron, former Commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, Paul De Martini, Managing Director of Newport Consulting Group, and Dan Yates, CEO of Opower.

Kann asked these grid movers and shakers about the future of the utility complex, posing questions like:

  • Is there really something transformative going on?
  • Will we see revolutionary or evolutionary change?
  • What is the coolest thing you can potentially do with big data?

Dan Yates, CEO and founder of Opower

Future utility customers, according to Yates, will employ widespread efficiency upgrades and "low-cost thermostats attached to an incentive program." He also predicts that thermostats will be set to a dollar value, say $110, instead of 78 degrees.

Yates expects apartment dwellers or renters to own a solar panel or two at a local solar farm. But he also said, "I don't think storage is going to be a big thing in ten years."

"Automation is the next big opportunity," said Yates.

The biggest challenge to the utility industry is that "they love their grid."  And despite the addition of more instrumentation, more meters and a huge surge in analytics, utilities haven't seen a positive result in call volume or customer satisfaction, according to the Opower CEO.

But Yates does have a sense that across the U.S. "a wave has broken in the last eighteen months." And the result is "a pivot by utilities" to be far more customer-oriented. We're having conversations about solar, said the CEO, adding, "The next phase of the solar industry has to have some complicity with the utility."

"We know the battleground," said the CEO. "And we want to help improve every customer touch point."

Mark Ferron, Former CPUC Commissioner

There is "a transformation taking place" that has been building for some time. It's accelerating and moving from evolutionary to "a series of tipping points." Ferron said we'll see "an acceleration" and "maybe a revolution." He added, "You have to create an environment" and "embrace the change." The outspoken policymaker envisioned regulators creating competition and "high-quality products for customers."

Ferron spoke of the battleground for the pace of change in California. He said, "The regulatory process is adjudicatory," but this may be an instance where "balanced is not always better" and instead promotes "the fallacy of middle ground." His concern is that "we create a hybrid animal that doesn't hang together."

Ferron said that he is "still excited about big data and smart meters coupled with automation technologies."

Paul De Martini, Managing Director, Newport Consulting Group

The utility veteran said, "New York, California and Hawaii are at the forefront" and "distributed technologies are becoming part of customer mandates."

De Martini said that reliability is "a big issue for customers," adding "east of the Mississippi, reliability means backup generation." He went on to say, "Backup generation has seen 45% growth this year," and noted that generators  "are not cheap" but "people are willing to pay more for [reliability]."  He added that utilities such as Madison Gas and Electric and Portland General Electric "are actually getting into the business of installing and maintaining" these assets and leveraging the aggregated generator fleet for grid services.    

De Martini envisions a tiered pricing structure where consumers pay based on the level of reliability delivered. He also sees a choice of "highly personalized, highly automated" and differentiated services versus the current "one-size-fits-all" scheme. 

Watch the full conversation here:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream