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Scott Morris: Digital Evolution to Lead to Personalized Service

Everywhere you look, technology is changing our lives. And it’s transforming the energy industry too.

Rapidly emerging technologies are disrupting the way energy is generated, delivered, and consumed. It’s one of the most exciting times I’ve experienced in our industry during my entire 30-plus year career at Avista.

While some people may see risk and threat, I don’t. I believe it’s an opportunity to lead during these times of change.  The digital revolution is here. For decades, the electric grid was engineered as an analog system that was built for safety and reliability. And it’s served us well for more than a century.

Today, the electric grid and power industry are undergoing a digital revolution. New technologies have led to distributive energy, data analytics, the internet of things, and changing customer expectations.

In recent years, Avista has added sensors, switches, and software to our substations, power poles, and distribution system that deliver power to homes and businesses. Those investments have allowed us to improve reliability, resulting in fewer and shorter power outages for our customers.

Here’s why.

The technology we installed provides greater visibility into our energy delivery system than we’ve ever had before. It’s also automated many processes that used to be performed manually.

Instead of sending a serviceman on location to identify the source of a problem, the sensor sends us a signal that automatically pinpoints the cause of an outage, allowing us to restore power within minutes instead of hours. It saves both our customers and Avista precious time during power outages.

We call this a “self-healing grid.” And the investments Avista has made to modernize our grid already have resulted in more than 2 million avoided outage minutes for our customers.

It’s also enhanced the energy efficiency of our system, allowing us to save 42,000 megawatt hours of energy annually, while continuing to provide the reliable power our customers expect.

The next step in the digital evolution will enable Avista to give our customers a more personalized experience.

In coming years, advanced digital meters will transmit customer energy usage data to Avista.

We then can share that information directly with customers, who can log onto a secure website to see charts and graphs that display their energy usage, nearly in real time. It’ll help customers become more aware of their energy usage.

In the future, we’ll be able to gain a deeper understanding about what our customers prefer based on what they tell us, which will help us personalize our utility service by offering them more choices.

For example, if you prefer that your energy comes from renewable resources, today you can purchase solar panels in Avista’s Community Solar Program.

Like many other utilities, Avista is launching mobile applications for bill notification, presentment, and payment, as well as for outage updates. Before long, mobile applications will extend into smart homes and connected buildings.

More choices are on the horizon as we work with our customers in new ways. We hope to be more than just their utility, and instead become their trusted energy advisers.

Energy storage

Energy storage will play a critical role in our energy future. Through Avista’s Energy Storage Project in Pullman, we’re conducting research that will help address one of the biggest challenges facing today’s energy industry: how to integrate power generated from intermittent renewable resources, such as wind and solar, into the electrical grid. Storage is the holy grail for our industry.

Batteries can store power generated by renewable sources when it’s abundant—for example when the wind is blowing—and distribute energy when it’s needed, providing reliable energy to our customers regardless of weather patterns.

We’re learning how energy storage can help our grid become more flexible, more reliable, and more resilient, so it can perform in the manner in which we need it to perform going forward.

As we look toward the future, trends show that even more people will be moving to cities. That puts a strain on our vital resources, including energy.

Now is the time to plan and prepare.

That’s why Avista has been leading a smart cities effort in Spokane that has resulted in a new collaboration known as Urbanova.

We’ve brought together six founding partners—Avista, the city of Spokane, Itron, McKinstry, the University District Development Association, and Washington State University—to create a smart city technology proving ground. It’s a living laboratory to design cities of the future.

We want to harness data to gain insights, empower people, and solve urban challenges in new ways. Ultimately, we want to enable healthier citizens, safer neighborhoods, smarter infrastructure, a more sustainable environment, and a stronger economy.

We know that new technologies will continue to change the energy landscape.

Indeed, it’s a transformational time in our industry. Given Avista’s rich culture of innovation, our employees always rise to the challenge. And this is no different.

We are excited by the possibilities to work with our customers in new ways to forge our energy future—together.

by Scott Morris

(Scott Morris is the chairman, president, and CEO of Spokane-based Avista Corp.)