Business Innovation Needed – Not Technology


Yesterday the Alliance to Save Energy co-sponsored a great event at City Hall with Seattle City Light, PSE and Snohomish PUD to discuss the three key themes from ASE’s Energy 2030 plan: Invest, Modernize and Educate. The event’s rock-star lineup included: Governor Inslee, Mayor McGinn, Council Member O’Brien, Jorge Carrasco, Richard Genece, Jim West, Bob Stolarski, Dan Clarkson, Alex Laskey, Stan Price, Kim Drury, and other great speakers; the audience was equally well stacked.

Innovation was a theme that worked its way into nearly every panel. In response to one of the panelists poking fun at the fact that the US dog food industry spends more per year on research than the energy sector, Richard Genece of BPA offered that they have a $30-$40 million (per year?) technology innovation budget.  Technology, eh?  Is technology the silver bullet that will get us there?  I am of the opinion that we have a lot of the technology needed to make great strides in energy efficiency, and that our current business practices are holding us back. Ash Awad, of McKinstry, playfully took a jab at utilities stating that the widget-based incentive model simply does not work.  While I don’t agree that it doesn’t work, I do sympathize with the sentiment that this 30 year-old business model needs to evolve a little quicker, and that the gatekeepers (utilities) serve an important role in giving new ideas a chance.

OPower is the most innovative thing I have seen come out of this industry in the last 10 years, and they didn’t need new technology to achieve their success.  They mixed psychology and software to address the question of what motivates people to use less energy (peer pressure, it turns out).  It’s brilliant! They identified the problem, saw a business opportunity, and introduced a solution. Alex Laskey, founder of OPower, gave props to PSE for being one of his first clients and for City Light for jumping on board; they took a chance on his company and are now some of the veterans of that program that has reached success with 90 utilities and counting.

We don’t need new insulation products, we just need to install more insulation; we don’t need new heating technology, we just need to educate people about the options that exist. Innovation and research have a place in advancing aggressive energy efficiency goals, but without re-thinking how we are getting people to act, and without utilities and policy makers opening their minds to new implementation, marketing, accounting and delivery models we’ll be stuck having the same conversation when I’m celebrating my 3 decades in the industry.

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