What Would Thomas Edison Say about Our Utilities Future?
By Rami Reshef
As the CEO of a leading fuel cell business serving the utilities industry, I am fascinated by the career of Thomas Edison. We all know Edison as a pivotal inventor and, yes, he gave birth to the first commercially viable light bulb and many other inventions that shaped our industry and the wider world. But when you read about him and hear his quotes, you can really see what drove him to be so successful. He clearly believed in hard work, he was extremely determined, and he thought that anything was possible.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison.
And it was no doubt this optimism that fuelled his ability to create solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. As we know, Edison developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution – something credited as being a crucial development in the modern industrialized world.
But that said, some 130 years after his invention, would Thomas have anticipated that 1.1 billion of us would still be without electricity? And, that in 2016 we would experience 3,800 power outages in the USA? Or that a school in Puerto Rico would go without power for 112 days? I don’t think so. I’m sure that he’d agree that we have more to do.
So, if Edison was alive today, what would he say about the current utility industry? Well, perhaps he already said it.
“There’s a way to do it better – find it.” Thomas Edison.
In recent years, there’s no doubt that the utility industry has worked hard to do just that. It has been forced to challenge its traditional business models and find better ways of doing things to adapt to an ever-changing world.
Why? Because what powers our world is also what’s damaging our planet. And with environmental and governmental legislation now in place to restrict or eradicate the use of fossil fuels, the industry had to act.
You can’t have failed to have heard about or felt the effect of a variety of initiatives to solve this problem. These include the increased use of renewables (wind, solar, wave) to meet climate change objectives; smart meters that empower us to make better decisions about our use of power; the development of microgrid environments; the use of smart grid initiatives and a whole host of other new and often disruptive technologies designed to help us prepare for a future of increased power use and diminishing fossil fuel reliability.
I sense that Edison would approve of these initiatives and that he would be quite excited about some of the new technologies and services starting to emerge. And from the below statement, he clearly understood business too.
“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” Thomas Edison.
Having been an astute businessman himself, Edison would no doubt appreciate this pressure and the need for CEOs to secure and maintain board confidence in a very turbulent market and a somewhat hazy future landscape.
And more day to day, their need to deal with other business challenges such as reducing costly outages and the resulting negative PR; preparing for severe weather incidents; reducing costs and increasing profitability; preparing for an EV future as well as attracting investors; pursuing acquisitions or establishing vital new alliances. It’s a busy time!
As a CEO myself, I am very aware of these pressures too. And in a small but not insignificant way, we’re proud to now play our part in supporting Utilities in this transformation.
How do we do that? Well, our G5rx is a modern fuel cell – hydrogen-based,100% green and emitting no C02 – providing long-duration backup for utility substations. For leading utilities around the world, when the grid goes down, our solution keeps their breakers open and their critical systems running for as long as needed. Over 10 years, a GenCell G5rx providing just 12 hours of backup power a year can save a utility hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct losses and tens of millions of dollars in indirect losses.
Given that Edison himself worked on fuel cells in the 1880’s, I think that he would be fascinated by the insight we had into one of our early pioneer customers, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). We spent two years getting to know SDG&E, co-developing our solution and getting it to the point where it met their most critical needs with all the certifications for wide deployment within their business. This was an amazing time and it gave us a comprehensive understanding of the modern utility business and what their CEO’s want and need. And interestingly, they are pretty universal requirements.
“Discontent is the first necessity of progress.” Thomas Edison.
In 2018, thanks to the digital revolution, we’re seeing a much more savvy, informed and demanding consumer base too. The ability to better engage customers and deliver additional value is clearly a big focus for the modern utilities. To achieve that, many are looking at digital technologies to create a more personalized consumer experience and drive increased brand loyalty.
Indeed, utilities are rethinking their traditional role and are now viewing themselves as ‘energy transformation businesses’. As they shift their focus towards creating an inclusive customer experience and migrate to lower carbon, lower cost, and sustainable futures, the provision of energy as a service is becoming a vital component for homes and businesses.
And this is where we see wider use of our technology within future utility business models – fuel cells used to provide critical back-up power via private or semi-private substations at universities, hospitals, police and fire stations and businesses with critical power requirements.
For utilities looking to introduce additional revenue streams and add customer value, this could be a vital new service. In the USA alone, there are over 5,500 hospitals, 15,500 local law enforcement and sheriff’s departments and over 27,000 fire departments – a conservative total of around 53,000 facilities! A huge market opportunity.
“What you are will show in what you do.” Thomas Edison.
As Edison eludes to above, what we do now could not only impact many future generations – especially with regards the use of renewables and other clean technologies such as fuel cells – but it will also tell a story about who we were and what we stood for.
And while this is easy to agree with, being brave enough to proactively change your successful business model employing many hundreds or thousands of people to achieve it, is not just a big ask, it’s potentially a big risk too. So, this perhaps explains why the utility industry was initially slow to respond.
“Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business. Always, America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith! Go forward!” Thomas Edison.
In the case of the worldwide utilities market, I think that Thomas is right and that the same lesson applies to us today. I also think that Edison would be pleased, and perhaps even proud, of how his industry is responding to its many challenges.
Personally, I can see how the industry has become stronger through this period, while demonstrating the kind of Edison spirit, optimism and drive for innovation that will see us successfully adapt and perhaps even emerge stronger, wiser and more profitable too!
In learning from the past to power our future, I’ll let Thomas have the last word:
“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” Thomas Edison.
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