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Utilities Must Get Bolder, Regulators Must Play Long Game

Energy sector entrepreneur departs Silver Spring Networks

I did something the other day that I had contemplated for a long time.  I left the company that I helped to start, Silver Spring Networks.  In the beginning, I thought I’d leave because the company wouldn't make it - it wasn't clear that anyone would ever buy a truly advanced networking platform to connect everything on the distribution grid, let alone from a small company founded in Milwaukee. 

Thankfully, due to an immense amount of work from an army of incredibly dedicated and talented people, the company thrived to become the leading provider in the United States.  Our success here lead us overseas, initially to Australia, then to Europe and eventually to Brazil, Singapore, India, Dubai and beyond. 

I leave with gratitude for the clients, partners, financial backers and countless other people with whom we collaborated, fundamentally transforming the way people interact with energy and how the modern utility operates.  Never has the saying ‘it takes a village’ been more true.  Great friendships were built along the way.

The exciting news?  We’re only beginning this journey of this transformation.  If I had to guess, I’d say we’re just entering the second inning of the game. 

Indeed, the opportunities and needs facing the industry are greater and more obvious than they were when we started Silver Spring in 2002.  Ever-lowering costs of renewables, increasing environmental awareness, the impact of an aging infrastructure and rising customer expectations are pushing us from nice-to-have to must-have.  Yet, we have more options than ever before and already a divide is forming to differentiate what we ‘should do’ from the longer list of what we ‘can do’.

Will we get ‘there’?  Do we even know where ‘there’ is?

This transformation is a journey, not a destination.  I’ve been amazed by what’s been accomplished over the last 15 years and suspect that the next 15 will deliver even faster cycles of innovation.  New opportunities are sure to be created.  So as I enter the next stage in my part of this journey, I’ll take the opportunity to make a few, modest suggestions.

For utilities and operators, we need to find a way to be bolder and faster in the adoption of new technologies.  We have a formula that doesn’t work - technology innovation cycles are turning over every 18-24 months, but adoption cycles remain stuck at 4-5 years+.  That means by the time you’ve fully tested, planned, budgeted, tendered and are ready to move, you are at least a generation off on the technology,  Those that find speed win - they accelerate the learning, value, and differentiation curves better than their competitors.

To technology innovators and vendors, stop blaming the customer and build better, more differentiated products.  Too many companies are building me-too solutions to problems already solved, half-baked products fail and set us all back.  Work to understand how your thing fits into the big-picture - nobody can solve this on their own.  If you create more value, you’ll be amazed how well you're adopted. 

And for the regulators, let’s start playing the long-game.  Your mandate is clear, but not simple - ensure a reliable system and value for the consumer.  Role models exist in California, New York and Illinois showing that prudent investments create outsized returns when we look across all stakeholders over a reasonable period of time. 

Asking the utilities to take all of the risk while minimizing their returns won’t work and will accelerate the deterioration of our national infrastructure.  The ability to enable consumer choice and implement policy objectives are dependent on a strong, modern grid.

In Silicon Valley, people always seem to be running from one thing to the next ‘big thing’.  For me, I suspect I’ll stay put - working with everyone to build a better, cleaner and more sustainable world. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years of the journey will bring.

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