The electric utility industry is an immense market -- total revenues from sales to end customers equaled $372 billion in 2014. The five largest U.S. investor-owned utilities (IOUs) have a combined market value of more than $200 billion. And the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association and lobbying arm for this industry, helps set the agenda for the crucial economic driver of reliable and affordable power.
Today's the first day of EEI's annual convention, and 800 utility executives are filing into a packed hall, preparing to hear from DOE secretary Ernest Moniz and Tesla CEO Elon Musk and CTO JB Straubel. This event is the place to be if you're an exec at one of the nation's investor-owned electric utilities.
At past meetings, the industry has not always been inclined to include alternative forms of energy in the discussion. But this year is a bit different -- there are panels on topics such as solar's impact on grid and policy, the future of energy storage, and the technology and trajectory of microgrids. It's a marked change from previous years. Just the inclusion of Tesla and its technology is a real sign of change in the utility world.
GTM is here in force in New Orleans and will be reporting on what's said on the stage and in the hallways.
Secretary Moniz helped launch the conference this morning by highlighting the need for a resilient electricity sector, particularly in the wake of events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. He also noted that the electricity sector will play a key role in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and adopting new, clean technologies, while supporting economic growth for the century to come.
"It's hard to exaggerate the importance of electricity, and the increasing importance of electricity going forward," said Moniz.
A new EEI report released this month underscored the significance of the sector, while also acknowledging that the industry is undergoing a fundamental restructuring.
"Today the electric power industry -- a fundamental industry that powers our economy and our lives -- is in the midst of a profound transition. There are intense debates in almost every state about how this transition should evolve," said Lisa Wood, vice president of The Edison Foundation and executive director of the Institute for Electric Innovation.
"The key questions for policymakers are whether the regulatory paradigm can be redesigned to best support the power industry transition that's underway and whether this can be done collaboratively," Wood added.
"It is time to lift our sights to think -- and act -- more boldly. We need to fundamentally rethink the way we deliver, manage, and use energy, " said Philip Mezey, president and CEO of Itron.
"We've seen our system evolve with the modern world, from the age when the world's first skyscrapers were being built, to today's networked, information-driven environment," said Robert Schimmenti, senior VP of electric operations at Con Ed. "Continued development of smart grid functionalities will be integral to managing a more advanced grid in which every customer meter and DER installation may become an active node interacting with the distribution system."
Today's kickoff speaker, the CEO of Entergy, Leo Denault, picked up on the theme of technological innovation and "the next frontier" of the power sector. We'll be reporting, tweeting, and causing a little bit of trouble at EEI 2015 over the next few days in Louisiana. Stay tuned.
(CNBC is setting up a live stream for the #EEI2015 Opening Session. Head to http://cnbc.com for coverage.)