Having returned to the office this week I actually found it eerily quiet and I almost didn't know what to do with myself sitting at my desk. That is the only way I can describe the contrast to the frenzy of activity last week in San Diego at DistribuTECH. Celebrating its 25th Anniversary, this conference and exposition has continued to grow year after year and 2015 set a record with 11,773 attendees as reported by Electric Light & Power / POWERGRID International. That is up 16% from the previous year. What impresses me most is not just the growth, but the fact that Pennwell and the Advisory Committee continue to raise the bar in the offerings for attendees. Delegates have so many options to maximize their experience at the conference which include:
- 15 Conference Tracks featuring nearly 400 of the industry's top professionals across 81 sessions
- Breakfast roundtables moderated by industry experts
- Several dozen Utility University Courses
- An Exposition Hall with almost 500 exhibitors
- Ability to interact with 300+ other utilities from 64 countries
- Attending mega sessions on topics that span multiple areas
- Joining in on Webcasts where industry executives stream content live to a global audience
In the weeks leading into the conference, I wrote about my observations of the agenda from a distribution operations perspective. The points from that assessment were that I noticed several trends in topics that lead me to summarize these were the key messages in the conference content.
- Importance of data to drive the smart grid (Numbered list)
- Criticality of damage assessment to successful utility storm recovery
- Increasing impact of weather related events to the distribution system
- Significance of spatial analysis on reliability
- How smart meters make the grid smarter than any other investment
- Value of providing timely and relevant information to customers during outages
- Role of mobile solutions continues to develop
- Advanced Distribution Management (ADMS) having better value in theory than practice
- Emergency response and utility restoration planning remains vital
While in San Diego, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend a few presentations, moderate a session on GIS/Mobile, work on the show floor as an exhibitor, and interact with a lot of delegates and fellow vendors. There is so much activity going on that I find this is the best way to get a good sampling of everything from which to draw conclusions and make observations. I stand by my initial remarks, but there were a few of these topics that stood out even more than I had expected. Storm planning and response along with the correlated area of customer communication seemed to be a theme in many of the conversations.
Of course there is the technology in the background that enables utilities to capture damage assessment or send out communications to customers about the utility restoration times for example, but equally discussed were the processes surrounding the application of technologies. I think that these reflect the times that we are in with society today as utilities are forced to do more with less, which means they are continually trying to optimize existing processes. Since the technologies for storm response have matured, the focus now has shifted to better ways of managing the response. Such activities as leveraging the "bring your own device" and smart phone apps to access GIS information via web services can enable any enable the collection and reporting of damaged facilities. Then automatically tying this information back to the outages can help dispatchers further prioritize the utility restoration by being able to see the details of the damage and assign the right crews for reconstruction. This ties into having better information for customers who patiently wait to hear from the utility on when the power will be restored. Automated notifications and social media integration with storm response now goes hand in hand as customers expect to be advised of changing conditions in near real time in an era where people are always connected. One observation on why these were such hot topics may be that these are not complex issues to address; the solutions do not take years to implement and have high customer value, which make them easy to justify to rate payers. Regardless of the reasons why, it was clear that utilities are talking about the customer as they are reminded of how important they are to the services they provide.
Everything seems to be getting "smarter". The hashtags for social media promoted by the conference included #DTECH2015 and #GetSmarter. I jokingly wonder if that means that we are not smart today! On the serious side, I think that it stands as a reminder that just because this industry is built around the design of a transformer that has not changed much in a hundred years, that utilities continue to challenge vendors to deliver solutions that allow them to streamline processes, become more efficient and deliver higher value to their customers. #GetSmarter is a challenge and not just a hashtag.
So after taking a deep breath and enjoying the peace and quiet of the office for a short while, the Advisory Committee will start planning for next year. I expect that changes will be in store to manage the increased volume of attendees as well as the shift in focus for some utilities which may results in new tracks. Either way, I can promise you that DistribuTECH will continue to raise the bar and you should plan to be in Orlando next year to see how it unfolds.
Eric J. Charette currently serves as Technical Manager of Business Development for Utilities, Communication and Transportation with Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure in the U.S. He is responsible defining long-term organizational strategic goals and provides technical direction, leading all marketing and presales efforts, maintains relationships with business partners and serves as product manager. Eric previously served as Executive Consultant for outage, mobile workforce and distribution management solutions. Prior to joining Hexagon in 2006, Eric worked for Wisconsin Public Service Corporation as a distribution field engineer where he was responsible for ensuring safety and reliability of the electrical distribution system by providing engineering support for design, construction, operation and maintenance. Later promoted to Senior Outage Management Engineer, he was responsible for all outage management at WPSR, providing technical and strategic expertise and setting policy. He also successfully led the client-side implementation of the corporate OMS project including serving as the system administrator and client lead responsible for change management and end user training. Eric has been recognized as an industry expert in utility operations with several industry publications and presentations. He also serves on the Advisory Committee for the DistribuTECH conference. Eric graduated from Michigan Technological University, in Houghton, Michigan, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, with an emphasis in Power Systems. Eric is a registered professional engineer in the states of Wisconsin and Alabama.