PEER Education: Q&A with Austin Energy
With a busy year for energy worldwide and a transformation focused on renewables, we caught up Austin Energy’s Sarah Talkington after her first PEER Fundamentals course on how she feels about the current energy market and how PEER fits in with the mantra of "people, planet and profit."
What are your industry’s bigger problems?
I think the utility industry is challenged by its size; changes are slow and costly. We have aging infrastructure, rapid changes in technology, widespread deployment of distributed generation and a status quo that doesn’t make sense for the future. We face new challenges in resiliency/climate change and growth. We have to change the way our customers experience us and their expectations of us, and that can also be hard. We also have a problem recruiting talented and capable employees and we have an aging workforce (by this, I mean they will be soon eligible for retirement). There is no shortage of challenges.
What is holding the industry back? What needs to change for the industry to evolve?
We aren’t doing a good job of pricing our product (do we need a capacity market?). The price doesn’t consider the costs associated with building and maintaining generation or any of the ecosystem services. You all start to address this with your rating, but you don’t go all the way in addressing the environmental impact of coal mining and fracking for natural gas. Maybe you all should develop a rating system for the energy market regulators!
What keeps your company's management awake at night?
Affordability of product, workforce management and aggressive climate goals.
Where do you feel your company could improve its game?
Software and hardware, mostly outdated infrastructure and lack of data.
How do you see yourself contributing?
I am a true triple-bottom-line sustainability advocate. This rating gives me the availability to communicate my needs (software and hardware) to the utility people using language they know and understand. It also helps make the business case for the improvements I need to do a better job of meeting my goals and serving our customers.
How will PEER help drive this?
Market transformation: It would be great if people demanded this of us—imagine our elected officials, customers or regulators demanding a PEER rating and score (charted improvements) from us? PEER could be an industry standard. Within the industry, this gives us the ability to distinguish ourselves from other utilities on a common scale. It would be great if we could use this tool to communicate to the legislature that we should not be deregulated, because we are providing a better product to our customers than what is available to them in the deregulated markets. Regulators should use the tool in deregulated markets to compare the services being provided and establish standards.
How can PEER help provide better customer service?
It lays out all the products and services that incentivize best practices behind a customer’s meter, so it establishes how we can create a mutually beneficial, two-way relationship with each other. This is really at the heart of the utilities' biggest challenges.
How can PEER help Austin Energy increase profits?
Incentivizing appropriate customer action can serve more customers with less infrastructure cost. This also helps identify and address waste [of energy].
How does PEER help grow the business and expand growth?
In the retail segment of a vertically integrated municipal utility, so many of PEER’s recommendations could help us expand our product line to better serve our internal and external customers (i.e., T&D and energy market operations).
How can PEER help market Austin Energy?
We could highlight the aspects we are doing well better. I don’t have access to the numbers—obviously our customers don’t. I feel as though we have a lot to be proud of, but I would like to communicate that with data.
How can PEER position itself for the future?
Get the word out. It's a great tool; people will recognize it as such.
How can PEER help you succeed professionally?
This helps me better understand the rest of the utility and what I can do to serve them better, as my internal customers—this makes me a really valuable employee for the utility (and somewhat rare).
How does PEER help you position yourself for the future?
This system demonstrates a lot of vision—and merely understanding these issues and action items makes me an employee that can help the utility bridge this transition period for the industry.
How does PEER make you feel like you are making a positive contribution to your industry’s evolution?
This does a very good job of educating people on the issues we need to be addressing as an industry. It helps us communicate with each other and work together. It's exciting!
Interested in joining Sarah Talkington as a PEER Fundamentals course graduate? Take the course!