Scott Milanowski was presenting one of our nine “Game Changer” Web seminars. He spoke on the status of smart grid efforts at his utility, Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E), from a strategic perspective. OG&E has a more holistic approach to smart grid than I've seen at other utilities. Milanowski, with day-to-day responsibilities for rolling out the utility's smart grid program, shared how OG&E is simultaneously working to supercharge the company culture and enhance customer engagement.

When the seminar was over, however, I wasn't satisfied. I wanted to learn more. It was time to take for a road trip to Oklahoma City.

I find that exchanging insights and information provides more value than mere information gathering. So I recruited sojourners Steve Gilkey, senior director of engineering, and Bill Menge, director of smart grid, both from Kansas City Power & Light, to be fellow road warriors. Kansas City has a Green Impact Zone project ongoing in the smart grid space, so Gilkey and Menge also have a story to tell. Their story deals with customer engagement and smart circuit initiatives in a disadvantaged area in the urban core, but that's a story for a future issue.

Sandra Longcrier, OG&E's smart grid media manager, arranged our trip to OG&E and graciously shared herself with us. Although I was meeting Longcrier for the first time, it was as if I'd known her all my life; we just get each other.

Gilkey, Menge and I arrived in time for dinner at Mickey Mantle's Steakhouse with Longcrier, Milanowski and Charles Plowman, OG&E's metering installation manager. Over dinner, we learned more detail about how the OG&E smart grid platform was designed with the goal to help OG&E maintain deeper relations with customers while running the grid more efficiently and cost-effectively.

During the evening, we also discussed the national tragedy that occurred when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed on that dark day of April 19, 1995. After dinner, Longcrier walked over with us to see the national memorial with its reflecting pool. We walked along the Field of Empty Chairs, which are handcrafted from glass, bronze and stone. Etched in the glass base of each of the 168 chairs is the name of someone who lost their life that day. We also stood in front of the remaining piece of chain-link fence where family members continue to leave notes and flowers for their loved ones. We met people there whose lives were touched by the tragedy who have forgiven but are not willing to forget.

This was such a solemn experience for me, much like what I had experienced in 2001 when I stood near the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers brought down on 9/11. These losses in New York and in Oklahoma City are a part of our national conscious. These losses serve to remind us that the strength of our country resides in those who are dedicated to building up, not tearing down

Staffing to Succeed

Over the phone, Longcrier had mentioned that the OG&E leadership team had staffed its smart grid initiative with the company's best and brightest. As you know, a lot of utilities will put together a team to meet corporate objectives. Too often, when each department is “muscled” for a volunteer, they will “offer up” their weak performers so their department won't suffer in the interim. That wasn't the case here. The smart grid members joined because they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves, even with no guarantee of what the future has in store for them.

OG&E's entire smart grid team is housed on a single floor in a nearby building. They are in a separate location to give the members the opportunity to build the camaraderie, consensus and mutual support required for this massive undertaking.

The morning after we arrived, we found ourselves on the 14th floor of the appropriately named Leadership Square Office Building. We first met Craig Johnston, vice president of marketing/strategy (OG&E's strategic director and a strong sponsor of culture change), who shared the events that led this company to go all in on smart grid. The utility commission had earlier denied OG&E's rate case for a new fossil fuel plant, leaving the company scrambling to regroup.

At moments like this, utilities can either get bitter or get better. OG&E decided to embrace the future rather than lament the past. The economy in Oklahoma City and its surrounding area is healthier than most of the country, so load growth is an issue. Looking over its options, OG&E came to realize that it would have to make up for the loss in generation with load-side solutions.

I am impressed that OG&E has thrown in all its cards. To meet obligations to serve its customers, OG&E must now deliver demand-response and load-reduction targets just as reliably and measurably as if it were delivering new generation. With the support of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, OG&E is moving ahead and is on track to hit its aggressive demand-side targets.

Milanowski provided us a comprehensive overview of the smart grid initiative, including a deeper dive into its communications platform strategy that employs both public and private wireless networks.

Mike Farrell, director of customer programs, then shared the challenge his team faces in launching and running OG&E's demand-response program. The team is committed to hitting its voluntary load-reduction and load-shifting targets. But unlike installing new generation, Farrell's team has the added stress of meeting the expectations of the many customers as they sign up for the demand-response program. More power to you, Farrell. I am actually envious of the fun and stress that is yours for the next three to four years.

Because many of its larger industrial and commercial customers already have energy portfolio strategies, OG&E is focusing on load-shifting and load-reduction opportunities for residential and small commercial customers. Farrell said contract crews are slated to install demand-response solutions on 40,000 homes per year with many homes already on-line.

Gilkey and Menge then shared their KCP&L smart grid strategies and experiences with the OG&E smart grid team. With questions flying in all directions over the course of the day, we all experienced a quite open and rewarding information exchange.

Driving back to Kansas City, Gilkey, Menge and I reviewed what we learned on our road trip. As our conversations swung wildly from the tactical hurdles of meter installations and voltage-control schemes to the potential for self-healing grids and the challenges of demand-side solutions, I realized a real shift going on in these utilities — a shift away from business as usual and a shift toward proactive engagement with customers, regulators and communities.

Owning What We Learn

Back in college, I'd take notes feverously (I still do), because it was in the taking of the notes that I'd imbed the content in my brain. Similarly, I read most books twice, first to grasp the content and again to internalize what I'd read.

In my 17 years in this job, I've found that when a column doesn't write, I'm missing something. So when this column wouldn't start, I knew I missed something.

I contacted Longcrier, only to find out that she had abandoned me and the smart grid team to work on the gas side. (I am holding that against her, but just a little.) I can't complain because Longcrier left me in good hands with Penny Seale. (I expect Seale is holding that against Longcrier, but just a little.) So, with Seale's help, I headed back down to Oklahoma with fellow T&D World writer Phil Johnson so we could capture the dynamic that is OG&E.

As fate would have it, we arrived back in Oklahoma City on Halloween. Not one to miss an opportunity, I came outfitted as a lineman, complete with work boots, gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, hard-hat and a lineman's jacket. Most members of the smart grid team were also dressed for the occasion with some of the most creative, outlandish and might I say “smart grid sacrilegious” outfits. I even got my picture next to my new fraternal female twin Denise Murphy, who was also dressed as a tool-belt-wearing lineman. On the tricked out 14th floor, spider webs and ghoulish decorations were the norm as we joined in on the smart grid crew's potluck luncheon with Oklahoma-style barbecue. I found myself talking with Rick Green who blew me away with this comment: “IT is my new best friend.” Green's experiences with information technology folk run counter the prevailing comments I hear in most utilities. I asked Rick to put his thoughts in a future column as we obviously have something to learn from him and his new friends.

I asked Johnson to put together an in-depth story on what is going on down in Oklahoma. To get an executive perspective, we walked a few blocks over to the OG&E headquarters building where we caught up with Jesse Langston, vice president of retail energy, and Ken Grant, managing director of smart grid and customer solutions. Langston is an engineer by degree and experience who has put in his time in operations. This man gets delivery. He also has this incredible passion for all things customer. I learned from Langston that OG&E treats its customers as family because in Oklahoma, they are extended family.

So now I saw the personal commitments OG&E maintains with its customers. Too often utilities see the regulator as its customer. This flawed approach inevitably comes back to haunt utilities. Regulators fulfill a critical role, but too often they fill in as a proxy for customers. Langston is working hard to create an environment where his utility fully engages with customers to meet their needs, and we know that nothing pleases a regulator more than a happy utility customer.

Grant followed up on Langston's comments by stating that most residential and small commercial customers don't know exactly what a kilowatt is, but they certainly know the value of hot water, air conditioning, lighting, freezers, motors and the rest, so we need to know what is important to our customers. Grant sees that we need an increasingly smart grid if we are to meet our customers' increasingly sophisticated expectations. Grant continued with this statement: “Here are several of the initiatives our OG&E members are tackling.”

“Wait a minute. When you say members, are you talking about OG&E employees?” I asked.

Grant assured me he was. An aha moment. Okay, so OG&E people treat one another as members of the same fraternity, as partners in the same adventure. That is the second missing piece of the editorial puzzle — the respect the greater OG&E team shows for one another.

OG&E is building out a smart grid, yes, but with the goal to meet the needs of the citizens of Oklahoma. Today, those customers consume gas and electricity. But when a host of energy applications come to our smart phones, our in-house displays and our smart pads, OG&E will be ready. This company intends to stay engaged with the local community. It is family down this way, and the members of OG&E wouldn't have it any other way.

Editor's note: To access the archived “Game Changers” series of Web seminars that includes Scott Milanoski's smart grid presentation, visit www.tdworld.com.