Over the next few months, I’m going to be looking ahead and sharing with you what I believe are likely to be the biggest game changers in our industry, starting with how we think about the energy market in general.
For more than 100 years, utilities have operated using a business model that was more or less static—they produced and purchased power generated from coal, nuclear and hydroelectric sources, then sold it to members at an affordable rate. Technology moved at a snail’s pace. Line crews sank poles, maintained lines and, over time, gradually expanded the grid.
All that is changing—rapidly. Renewable energy sources may one day be a practical option for generating some of the electricity we need to power our homes, schools, churches, factories and farms. Exciting new battery technologies may soon allow us to store exponentially larger amounts of electricity than we can today. The old meter at your home that merely records electricity use could be replaced by a “genius meter” that allows you to manage power consumption and maximize the value of your utility service.
If all this sounds a bit radical, think about the transition from rotary telephones of the past to the smartphones of today. For decades, a phone was a hardwired device connected to the outside world by a network of wires suspended on poles (most often an electric utility or cooperative pole). In the earliest days, the phone was generally in a common room—a kitchen or living room—and its range was governed by the length of the cord between the base unit and the handset.
Anyone living through the 1970s can remember when long phone cords were essential to have any degree of privacy, especially when teenagers were talking to boyfriends or girlfriends. The sight of a cord winding from the phone through a closed bathroom door was common, as were time limits for phone calls (often ignored).
In the 1980s, lower costs for both hardware and additional lines made putting a phone in multiple rooms feasible and affordable. Then came the invention of cordless phones, which were a wonder at the time and a huge leap forward in technology.
From there quickly followed the first portable telephones that you could take in your car, and satchel phones became a status symbol in the mid-1980s. Since the 1990s, cell phones have gotten smaller, smarter and less expensive, and landlines have gradually disappeared.
Today’s smartphones allow us to communicate with anyone in the world almost anywhere in the world, and they give us unlimited access to information, weather, news, movies and games—all while letting us share pictures of our lunch with our Facebook friends. The explosion of technology also created new business opportunities. Every one of these new uses for a phone is part of an array of revenue sources for an industry that formerly charged a flat monthly fee for service and by the minute for long-distance calls.
Just as a wave of innovation transformed the phone industry in the span of 30 years, new technologies are poised to revolutionize the electric industry. Such leaps often produce unexpected results, from the mundane (like everyone knowing what everyone else had for lunch, thanks to Snapchat and Facebook) to the profound (instant news anywhere worldwide) to the absurd (a generation consumed with selfies). In the utility sector, technological advances in renewable-energy sources, battery storage and the advent of a “genius” meter are likely to change the way we track and distribute electricity and propel a new business model where the local utility is, first and foremost, an energy-services provider.
Whatever happens next in the utility sector, South Carolina’s not-for-profit electric cooperatives will be at the forefront of it all, making sure technology and innovation come together in a way that best serves you, our member-owners. It’s how we’ve done business for 75 years, and no amount of technological upheaval will ever cause us to waver from that commitment.