Transmission & Distribution World editors gathered executive decision makers from four utilities to share their passions in promoting and implementing innovation in the electricity marketplace. Key decision makers also were brought together from materials innovation, education, consulting, manufacturing and research to see how the pace of innovation might be accelerated.

A look back finds the pace of innovation in the electric utility industry too slow to meet expanding needs. The industry needs to move from a serial approach to a parallel approach to speed the process of innovation. All parties need to be involved early on to build the platform and the processes for innovation. Materials science professionals need to be talking to product innovators because major leaps in innovation follow advances and discoveries in materials science. Research facilities and universities need to understand the business needs of utility executives.

More than anything, the industry needs to work together to face the big issues of the upcoming decades, whether they be infrastructure for electric vehicles, direct-current distribution grids, a low-carbon future, or distributed wind and solar integrated with the grid.

Executive Innovation Summit Participants

T&D World convened the Executive Innovation Summit at the Dow headquarters in Midland, Michigan, U.S., in September 2012. The editors of T&D World are constantly in touch with utilities from around the world, and the goal of the summit was to bring together the most creative minds in utility leadership to help guide the next surge of innovation needed in the industry.

Some of the most powerful movers and shakers in the industry gathered together — leaders who are committed to change and are at the right level within their companies to ensure these changes take place:

  • Terry Boston, CEO, PJM Interconnection
  • Mike Hervey, COO, Long Island Power Authority (LIPA)
  • Michael Quinn, vice president and CTO, Oncor Electric
  • Gianluca Gigliucci, researcher, ENEL (Italy)
  • Kurt Yeager, vice chairman, past CEO, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)
  • Maciej Kumosa, director, Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, University of Denver
  • Vijay Pargaonkar, vice president, business development, CG Automation Systems
  • Richard Brown, vice president, power networks, Worley Parsons (USA)

Dow Electrical and Telecommunications (Dow E&T), a business unit of The Dow Chemical Co., sponsored the event as part of its efforts to increase focus and investment in materials innovation for the power and telecom industries. Support for innovation is embedded in the very DNA of Dow. And this was evident by the high-level of participation from Dow executives in Dow E&T, Dow Solar, Dow Energy Solutions, Dow Building Solutions and with the advanced energy-storage joint venture Dow Kokam.

That is how everyone came together in a beautiful autumn setting in northern Michigan with a global materials company eager to work with utilities, closely interacting with top utility thinkers and leaders — everyone eager to get materials innovation into high gear.

Damien Polansky, global director, electrical infrastructure, Dow E&T, kicked off the meeting with a presentation of the breadth of Dow's materials innovation and development accomplishments, and, more importantly, of Dow's willingness to invest in materials development for application in the energy space. Utility industry leaders pointed out the synergy between utility needs and products already in development for other industries including advanced batteries and photovoltaic solar. Going the other way, Dow was looking for opportunities to apply its research and development (R&D) capabilities to develop products specifically for the utility industry. And considering its large contingent of dedicated R&D employees, along with an extended network of collaborators from testing institutes, academia and professional associations, Dow has the innovative focus and muscle to support its various Dow business units and the industries they serve.

A Seismic Shift in Innovation

For a century, power system innovation was primarily driven by the electric utilities. Standards were set with manufacturers providing equipment to meet those specs. Manufacturers occasionally developed a few new features, but, by and large, utility purchasing departments went out to bid based on standards. There were pilot projects and demonstration projects as manufacturers tried to get new products to market, but it was difficult to get innovative products to the rate base. So, the industry frequently settled for pilots and demonstration projects that lasted until the technology was obsolete. Terry Boston referred to this process as “…death by a thousand pilots.”

Then the digital age hit, and utilities were pushed to extend beyond standard practices and work more closely with technology providers that had formed around other industries. Now the industry is seeing new market entrants work with utilities to develop innovative information technologies, often by adapting solutions from other industries. Kurt Yeager, former president and CEO of EPRI, welcomes the effort as long overdue.

“Our industry has rested for so long, just maintaining where it was,” Yeager said. “But you can never stay where you are; you'll slide back unless you push forward. We can't afford to just live in the past or even be content with the present. We must build for the future.”

A big part of building for the future requires taking advantage of the spectrum of new materials offerings.

Big Payoffs in Materials Science

Right from the beginning of the forum, the invited experts were quick to identify areas of need for materials innovation for the power industry.

“Materials science is generating the most exciting advances in the electric utility industry,” said Boston. “I once thought that superconducting materials were going to change the transmission world, just like fiber optics changed the communications world. That's probably not going to happen. The real prize may be lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced conductors that will allow us to get more amps down the same right-of-way.”

Boston is CEO of PJM, the largest grid operator in North America, providing 164,000-MW peak capacity over about 60,000 miles (96,561 km) of transmission. He also happens to be one of the renaissance men in the industry, with a previous history of innovation during his stint as an executive at Tennessee Valley Authority.

Big Challenges, Bold Solutions

The group discussed several challenges to the transmission system that have been presented by the growing solar and wind generation. For example, these intermittent sources can produce large power swings on major overhead lines and underground cables. The resulting heating and cooling cycles, and different rates of expansion between cable insulation layers, can lead to failure. The thermal cycling also might cause accelerated degrading of even the latest-developed carbon and polymer core transmission line.

When it comes to the distribution side, Mike Hervey, COO of LIPA, was quick to point out the need for better diagnostics to predict structural failure in the aging system. “For example, we don't have ways to predict breakage of the pole and crossarm system. You reconductor with bigger conductors and the crossarm breaks. Put up bigger crossarms, and they don't break — the pole breaks! I know that some sort of predictive failure indicators could be installed so we'd know in advance when something's about to break. We need much more collaboration between our industry and the folks who do the materials science R&D.”

The idea of cross-fertilization between utilities and other industries resonated with everyone. “We need to encourage more infusion of talent from other industries,” emphasized Michael Quinn, vice president and CTO of Oncor Electric Co. “The materials science folks, like Dow, have incredible data analytics that are way ahead of anything that utilities have available.”

That of course led to a discussion around corrosion resistance of aging utility infrastructure. Damien explained, “Dow Automotive has developed high-performance corrosion-resistant solutions for automobiles. The opportunity exists for Dow's E&T business to leverage these technologies and extend the operational life of critical T&D assets, allowing utilities to defer replacement capital and ultimately keep electricity costs low for consumers.”

And so it went over three days. Even during meals, the dialog kept flowing. The participants did not agree on everything, but everyone agreed on one thing: Collaboration and innovation in materials science can have enormous benefits to the rapidly evolving power industry. Materials science may not be the last frontier but it is certainly the next one. Utilities are more receptive to change than ever before, and the materials industry is looking for new markets, an example of that interest being the Dow E&T business unit.

The last day of the summit included a tour of the new Dow Kokam lithium-ion Midland Battery Plant, which contains 400,000 sq ft (37,161 sq m) of automated XALT cell and XSYST pack manufacturing capability. The plant produces 600 million watt-hours of large-format batteries annually for the global transportation, defense, stationary storage and high-end industrial markets. Following the tour, the group had a very productive discussion regarding bulk storage for transmission support. The Dow Kokam folks made the point that battery chemistry and geometry need to be optimized for the application, and they will be following up with some of the utility panel.

The last few hours of the Executive Innovation Summit were held in the InVision Zero Solar Home. Using readily available energy-efficiency and renewable technologies from Dow and other select manufacturers, this home achieves net-zero monthly utility bills. Energy input to the home is provided by Dow's unique POWERHOUSE Solar Shingles, which look and perform just like regular roofing shingles that protect the home but also generate electricity to power it. They are durable enough to withstand the elements and are certified as both a roofing and solar product.

The interior of the home also was where many of the participants were interviewed by T&D World editors. See their videos on T&D TV site, with a new video posted every week.

After being wowed by Dow's Solar Shingles and the other innovative energy-saving features, the panel convened to discuss the next steps to speed the innovation process, particularly in the materials area.

Taking a decade to decide whether to implement a new technology might have made sense 30 years ago, but not now when laboratory-to-market cycles are two years to five years. Utilities are understandably risk averse and require solid evidence that new methods and materials are going to work before they go out on a limb. But they also know they need objective data beyond what they get from just watching a small pilot for a decade under uncontrolled and often non-repeatable conditions.

Getting at the objective data is one reason why Maciej Kumosa is in this Who's Who of innovators. Kumosa runs the national Industry/Cooperative Research Center for novel high-voltage/temperature materials and structures at the University of Denver, partnering with Michigan Technological University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. He tells me to pronounce his name as “Magic,” which certainly seems appropriate in light of what he gets done.

Opening Wide the Doors of Opportunity

The utility industry can expect a lot of new entrants to come knocking with new ideas, and the industry had better figure out how to open the doors. The T&D World editors and staff will help find the keys.

And that also requires working with the overseas utility brethren. Gianluca Gigliucci, researcher at ENEL, the second-largest utility in Europe and a leader in innovation, agrees. “One of the most valuable features of our gathering was having the major links of the value chain — materials R&D, manufacturing, utilities — together at the same time and place.”

Said Gigliucci, “The new challenges to the power industry are pretty much the same whether you're in Europe or the U.S.: impacts of intermittent renewable generation on existing generation and networks, lifetime expectations of renewable technologies and, of course, development of better storage technology. At the same time, we've got to keep the aging infrastructure in good operating shape. And all this with tighter budgets.”

Vijay Pargaonkar, through CG Automation Systems' 37 offices located around the world, has the challenge of being an international manufacturer and a solutions provider. Like Gigliucci, he also has a global perspective. “Innovation is a necessity. It's not a choice. In this meeting, I found top-notch people and top-notch ideas. I also heard about some solutions from Dow that are so far advanced that I hadn't heard of them. In just a few hours, I'm so much further ahead in my understanding of the near-term opportunities that we're uncovering!”

But talk is cheap, so it was important to get the panel's ideas off the whiteboards and into action. So each participant committed to two or three near-term actions. T&D World editors contacted them a few weeks after the summit to see how they were progressing on their commitments. As of this writing, progress has been made and it seems the small (but powerful) band of innovation evangelists will make a big difference in forming the global future of the power industry.

The Bottom Line

Utility executives are available and listening. It is important to continue the dialog initiated at the T&D World Dow Executive Innovation Summit. The industry should build interest groups early that cross boundaries to increase the pace of innovation and the impact of the innovations that result. The first steps have been taken, but more remains to be done.

In the few months since the summit, many of the participants have taken their next steps. For example, Dow personnel have visited Oncor facilities to learn firsthand the issues utilities are dealing with; T&D World editors have visited the Dow Kokam Global Research & Development Center in Kansas City and the University of Denver materials laboratories; and Richard Brown is attending the inaugural meeting for the National Center for Transmission Materials and Structures at the University of Denver, being hosted by Maciej Kumosa.

By its very nature, innovation is a messy process. But it requires focus and passion. The utility industry needs to step up now and invest in the future with innovation leading the way. The editors of T&D World are ready to assist and facilitate. Feel free to contact us with your thoughts and suggestions. Let's keep dialog flowing and innovation accelerating.

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