Is power becoming hip?

IEEE outreach might expand your thinking

Phil Carson | Mar 07, 2012


The SXSW—formerly known as the South-by-Southwest Festival—kicks off in Austin, Texas, tomorrow and you're already wondering—why is that fact being mentioned in a power industry column at all? After all, that annual confab is where bands go to get a record deal, right?

Well, the point here is that SXSW has morphed into a music and film festival that also leverages the forward-looking, diverse, socially conscious interests of its performers, participants and audience to interact around a multiplicity of ideas and mutual interests.

For a columnist whose only notion of "hip" is that it's part of the human anatomy, I had to have the advantages of this fact explained to me. But once Jay Iorio, technology strategist for the IEEE's Standards Association, explained it to me, it was both brilliant and painfully obvious (notions that are not contradictory, I'd venture).

We just featured an "Industry Expert" column by Wanda Reder, chair of IEEE Smart Grid and immediate past president of IEEE's Power and Energy Society (PES), who is working to attract engineering students to work in grid modernization.

Iorio is taking a different tack by heading to SXSW to converse with like-minded people in an emerging technology field that includes virtual worlds, gaming, simulated realities, etc. I had a brief conversation with Iorio yesterday and will simply run some of his thoughts past you, if only to jog your thinking. Not everyone involved in creating a smarter grid will come from the academic ranks of electrical engineering. It's very likely that many third parties will be involved on some level with utilities, with vendors or with customers in some way that could benefit from Iorio's approach.

"My purpose is to attract people to the IEEE-SA for this new, interdisciplinary area, one that involves the arts, military simulations, really a whole spectrum of activities that conceptually are allied," Iorio told me. "I'm trying to create a new community. Judging from the hugely diverse set of people at South-By-Southwest last year and the imaginative discussions that I had, I'm confident that I'll find some people for this new group I'm creating and get them interested in the IEEE's activities."

Hmmm. Gather free thinkers from outside your specific bailiwick and see how they might collaborate on problem-solving relevant to your challenges.

"The thinking behind my effort is that a lot of fields are coming together," Iorio said. "They're separate now, but not really. From the point of view of the underlying technologies, they're all pieces of the same animal. Computer-generated cinema, interactive television and media, 3-D in all of its forms—augmented reality, virtual worlds. There's no real name for this area, thought it has been referred to as 'new media,' 'advanced media.' So I'm trying to create a community that doesn't realize that it's a community."

When you consider the oft-cited convergence of IT, telecom and power, transferring Iorio's mission to one involving the power industry's interests isn't a big leap.

"I found last year that with the South-by-Southwest crowd, I got the most excitement out of them when they thought in terms of helping society," Iorio said. "It's really a very idealistic crowd. When I talked about how work in this new field could transform society with all its applications, that's when I saw the spark in their eyes and found them really engaged. So I look forward this year to getting people involved in a specific subject.

"My specialty is this virtual stuff," Iorio continued. "But I've got people working on smart grid, for example. The Internet of things. The same principles apply to all of those. We want imaginative thinkers to serve as the engine for all these activities.

"The 'Internet of Things' is a clumsy term, but the smart grid is a part of that," he added. "I'd like to attract general thinkers who see the smart grid as a piece of a ubiquitous Internet, for lack of a better term—the fact that the entire environment becomes intelligent to some extent. That includes power, water and things we haven't even thought of yet. Clearly, electricity is the backbone of the IEEE."

The IEEE and the power industry are somewhat analogous, in that the IEEE, for instance, "was a stodgy thing of the past," Iorio said, warming to his thesis. And now the IEEE and its related vertical industries are becoming "the hippest areas because they involve all those transformative technologies."

"It's like the 'hip-icization' of the IEEE and the power industry," Iorio said, chuckling at his newly minted term.

Who knew a music and film festival could turn into a socially conscious movement leveraging technology to transform society? Especially with beer in hand.

But I really liked Iorio's fresh thinking around recruitment for imaginative problem solving and future-shaping. Why not wade into gatherings of young people with myriad backgrounds and talents and see what this low-budget, high-touch approach might yield? Maybe the power industry's myriad players would find that a similar strategy would bear fruit.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

Related Topics


Simple Energy at SXSWi

Maybe it's because Simple Energy focuses on the utility-customer relationship or because we're equal parts social startup and energy services company, but going to SXSWi was a "no brainer" for us.

We go to other conferences with more utility decision makers and sessions on industry best practices. But, SXSWi is the only conference that gives us direct insight into leading edge consumer-engagement techniques and exposure to the tools that will prove invaluable for our utility customers.

Both Twitter and Foursquare were introduced to the world at SXSWi in recent years -- and many of the most influencial people in consumer technology will be there. And so will we.

If you're going down to Austin this weekend, let us know -- we'd love to discuss the intersection between social technology and utility customer engagement.

Yoav Lurie, CEO, Simple Energy | Email | Twitter | Web

Justin Segall, EVP, Simple Energy  | Email | Twitter | Web

See you at SXSW!

Hey Phil, thanks for this great article! We're excited for the energy industry to become more "hip" and we hope to see Mr. Iorio at SXSW - we'll be hosting a party with a bunch of other TechStars folks on Friday evening if anyone wants to come! Details in the first link on our blog post about your article today:

Hiring the Right Talent

Having held several utility operational manager positions which included engineers, professionals, and technicians, hiring was always one of the key responsibilities listed under “and other duties” in the manager’s job description.  A strategic message I continue to deliver to utility executives is to look at replacing the intellectual knowledge before it walks out the door.  For many utilities that have not recognized this issue, they are already behind the eight ball. 

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To find good and qualified talent for utility positions is more than just having engineering or IT skills.  The majority of the workforces in utilities work outside of the IT departments.  Most utility workers are tied to some central control center with some form of handheld or portable computers.  They are required to be skilled utility engineers or technicians along with continually developing more technology knowhow.  Most utility vehicles have some form of real-time or near real-time linked communications. 


The mindset of the utility worker is typically different than many of those who only work in an IT environment.  The typical utility worker has to have some customer interaction skills no matter what their position.  All can come in direct contact with customers during their normal work day.  With the advancement of technology in the utility industry, they are also required to have more and more technical skills as well.  A big differentiator is the ability to be real-world practical.  They need to understand that what works on a test bench may not work well in the real environment.  That is usually a training issue for engineers and technicians alike.


Many of the best replacement candidates are the children of existing utility workers.  They have seen their parents leave home at all hours to serve customers who are out of power, natural gas, or water.  They work nights, weekends and holidays.  The utility industry runs 24x7.  Many of the jobs are in hostile environments or carried out on the property of the customers.  This job requirement quickly eliminates many people who are not comfortable or desire not to work under these conditions. 


You have to think out of the box and look under every stone.  The utility industry is behind the eight ball and qualified talent is leaving faster than they can train new replacements.  A major untapped source is the returning military vets.  They are use to working in hostile environments, many have good customer interaction skills, and they are technology savvy.  One of their biggest assets is their dependability.  This requirement cannot be over stated in today’s work environment.  Utilities should be leading the charge in hiring this tremendous resource.


Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principle


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Thanks Richard

What a great idea -- hooking up the utility industry with returning veterans. It would make sense for many of the nation's vertical industries to define their workforce needs and present them to the relevant federal agency for hiring veterans who, as Richard indicates, have a range of skills.

There have been a spate of news articles in recent months about the difficulties that returning veterans have had with reintegrating into the workforce and, indeed, a consumer society that has not fully grasped the nature of two, nearly decade-long wars and the toll they have taken on our men and women in uniform.

Utilities that have such programs would be welcome to contact us to explore the topic further.

Regards, Phil Carson

Touched a nerve

Good morning and thanks for these thoughtful comments. I'm going to have to report directly from the SXSW Festival next year.... You know thingss have changed when an originally music festival now has "tracks"....

Sounds like a couple strains of thought here. One, utilities will never change ("hide-and-seek for $2,000" -- heck, I'd take that deal), but face the music as the world changes more rapidly. Another is that the third party energy service providers will get between the G & T operators and create the customer-facing world that utilities cannot muster. Also, that local generation, probably distributed energy resources (solar, wind, storage) will get small end-users closer to net zero status, with the grid for backup.

The wheels are in motion. Literally, on the EV front. Which, ironically, some utilities view as their ace in the hole. If the transportation fleet gets electrified, that may be a huge boon to centralized power.

Just a few thoughts. Thanks to Mr. Iorio for sparking the conversation.

Regards, Phil Carson

The industry will have to change its image first

Utilities have always been perceived as the places to go if you want a steady paycheck, a nice defined-benefit pension, and not a lot of pressure on you during your workday. As one former utility apparatchik told me, "it's hide-and-seek for $2000 a week" (OK, that was a dozen years ago.)  In General, utilities have not been the places where the future is invented, although some utilities have certainly been more innovative than others. The people who are tunneling under the utility walls are the ones doing the innovating. I've had no problem during the past twenty years recruiting top talent to various energy service startups. All I had to do was tell them that they would be building the "un-utility."

The old utility model, where everybody stayed happy as long as rates didn't rise to suddenly and the lights stayed on, is quickly being relegated to the ash heap of history. It's pretty clear that as a society we've failed to invest sufficiently in infrastructure, energy infrastruture in particular. We're likely to be going through a tumultuous transition from a relatively few large powerplants representing a few technology types to increasing numbers of smaller "greener" power sources of many different types. The transportation system is going to get more electrified. The world in general is going to get more electrified. Does anybody really thing Africans and South Asians are going to settle for anything less than people in the northern hemisphere have? We'll need more redundancy and fault-tolerance in our end-use points and in the distribution system. We'll need to figure out a way to pay for it all and provide people with choices comparagble to what they get from their cable provider or their cell phone company.

Finally, after more that a hundred years of being the stodgy business where little old ladies put their pension money to get a steady dividend, utilities are going to be exciting places to be, or they'll cease to exist as investor-owned companies. Like everything else on this planet, they will adapt and evolve--or die. A utility that recognizes that fact is one that will be able to lure people away from careers at Google or Goldman Sachs.

Can a Leopard Change its Spots?

To mix metaphors with an African theme this morning, the question on my lips after reading your Comment (well done, agree wholeheartedly with your perspective, as if I was looking in a mirror) represents the "Elephant in the Room" ... "Can a utility go from being the safe place to work, a bureaucracy where nothing new happens and its chief upside is a steady paycheck - to an exciting work environment where innovation is rewarded even encouraged? Can a leopard change its spots?" I'm reminded of the old Soviet joke - "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." But I'm dating myself...

I applaud the efforts of IEEE to go into the mosh pit that is SXSW - Phil, BTW, SXSW has three tracks: Music, Film, and Interactive (internet). I bet IEEE is involved with the Interactive track ...I view utilities as a 20th century model that will be replaced/complemented by 21st century energy service companies going forward. I think a small percentage of utilities will get it, but a large number will not. Call me pessimistic of IEE's efforts when applied to utilities, if the goal is to get young innovators to go work for utilities. But I support the objective and am more optimistic if young innovators go to work for energy service startups that combine the best of telecom, IT, internet, and distributed energy ... I believe that is an exciting path to the future, but one that only a handful of utilities will embrace.

For the sake of our existing investment in the grid, I hope I'm wrong and utilities step up with major efforts to change their culture and work environment by embracing risk, innovation, and the future ... but I'm not seeing it yet.

John Cooper, President, Ecomergence