We can't afford to misstep as we roll out innovations into the energy marketplace. And unless we understand the times and the needs, we will develop solutions that will not have the desired outcome.

I recently met with Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) executives to discuss the role of innovation in meeting our citizen's energy needs in an increasingly global economy.

Recently, EPRI has been investing a lot of intellectual effort in rethinking innovation. EPRI CEO Mike Howard told me that the issues we face today require that we move at a pace not encountered since the days of Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse. But before we dive into details, let me share how Howard breaks down our past, present and future epochs of electric energy:

Evolution — 1880s to 1930s

Expansion — 1930s to 1970s

Transformation — 1970s to 2010

Innovation — 2010 to 2050

As an industry entering the Innovation Era, Howard predicts that cross-disciplinary, game-changing solutions will be required to accelerate the pace of innovation. “For an innovation to be of value, it must be applied,” Howard explained.

He also shared that in our present economy, we need solutions that reduce costs and increase productivity. We also need feasible options that can be demonstrated, scaled and deployed quickly. And because innovations in generation, delivery and customer solutions now cross boundaries, Howard predicts we will see new entrants accomplish in five or 10 years what previously would have taken 30 years.

Arshad Mansoor, EPRI's senior vice president of R&D, commented on the emerging global energy economy, stating that depending on where we are in the world, our short-term business climates are different but our long term challenges are the same. Arshad also shared his passion that we need to keep our national labs, universities and manufacturers engaged if we are to transform the electric energy industry over the coming decades.

EPRI Fellow Clark Gellings warned that we also need to keep an eye out for disruptive technologies that seemingly appear from nowhere and that can have enormous impact. Think mobile field computing, for example.

Mansoor suggested we rethink where utilities invest in the innovation process. Depending on the technology and the other industries involved, electric utilities should be strategic in deciding whether they should take a role as a technology maker. In some instances, it makes more sense for the utility industry to be technology takers. Mansoor gave battery technology as an example where the need for increased energy density is being driven by electronic devices and electric vehicles.

Looking forward, Howard states, “We will see an increased level of uncertainty as one energy scenario challenges another for dominance. Innovation will be key to address this uncertainty and continue to ensure that society has access to affordable, reliable and clean energy.”

In the coming decade, utilities will increasingly consider photovoltaic and concentrated solar, biomass, offshore wind, hybrid cars, carbon capture, advanced automation, pollution control, energy storage, cyber security and electricity utilization. The impact of these innovations on our power grid will be significant, requiring an ever more secure, adaptable and robust power grid.

Additional Views on Innovation from EPRI Members

Italy

“Dynamic interaction is emerging between load, generation and storage.”
Sauro Pasini, Vice President, Research, ENEL

“Innovation is a structured process and must transform ideas into projects and projects into value for our business units.”
José Arrojo de Lamo, Vice President and Head of Innovation, ENEL

Germany

“Customers now take an active stand to increase sustainability.”
Susana Quintana-Plaza, Vice President, Innovation Scouting & Co-Investments, E.ON SE

South Africa

“We have concerns on the security of supply and see the need for programs that will enable customers to shift load.”
Steven Lennon, Group Executive, Sustainability, Eskom International

Great Britain

“Innovation is a key element within National Grid and that requires we also map external influences so that we address key needs.”
Ian Welch, Innovation Manager, Innovation Transmission, National Grid

United States

“We are developing solutions and strategies that help us to perform, yet transform while we adapt to rapid change.”
Eileen Buzzelli, Director, FE Technologies

Note: Views gathered from 2012 EPRI Innovation Summit.