Austin, TX. January 5, 2021

Long before the 2020 pandemic hit, the need to modernize utility infrastructure – electric, water, and natural gas systems – was readily apparent to industry and regulators. Existing urban infrastructure was 100-or-more years old. Replacing hardware was crucial to keeping critical infrastructure working.

As momentum built over the past few decades to upgrade utility infrastructure, the scope of the task expanded as climate change, digitization, income inequality and social activism engulfed the world. Further, the inextricable linkage between climate, energy and water – the energy-water nexus – became apparent to stakeholders. Sustainability, equity, and community inclusion have become overarching themes pressing industry leadership. The challenge, as is often the case, is in the design and detail of how to implement such complex policy, technical, and logistical goals.

The effect of these converging social, economic, technological, and environmental conditions is that utility modernization, in addition to simple hardware upgrades, has taken on social and economic dimensions, providing significant opportunities, according to a wide range of experts, to reengineer cities, connect communities, and redesign social contracts and workforce development.

On December 9-10, 2020, the WE3 Virtual Summit, hosted by Zpryme and Smart Energy Water, addressed this complex set of interwoven topics in a lively, international, online discussion. The theme of the summit was focused on engaging, educating, and empowering utilities and their customers with the technology to address issues of energy, water, gas, and community.

Deepak Garg, CEO of Smart Energy Water (SEW), stated in a panel discussion that “At SEW, we are working together with our partners to solve all complex and simple problems related to utilities. We know that simple problems can be very complex to solve, and that complex problems can be simple to solve, if you’re committed and passionate about it.”

Summit speakers appeared in general agreement – the devil is always in the details – that utility modernization now encompasses not only replacing wires, poles, and pipes, but has come to address equity and inclusion across socio-economic tiers related to utility service, affordability, education, opportunity, and safety. Replacing wires and pipes can be simple compared with expanding utility services to include community development initiatives.

Nancy Bui-Thompson, VP of SMUD Board of Directors, delivered an enthusiastic briefing on that utility’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. She stated that “We’re one of the first utilities in the country to really look at how the utility can work throughout our community, rather than with only a narrow focus of delivering electrons to turn on lights. Sustainable Communities is a collective of organizations and partnerships we are bringing together around the concept of four pillars; social well-being; healthy environment; prosperous economy; and electric mobility.”

Responding to a question from Zpryme CEO Jason Rodriguez, Paula Gold-Williams, CEO and President of CPS Energy in San Antonio, explained that “CPS Energy has been around for 160 years in the same community. We believe that by being tech-enabled and digitized, we are prone to partner not only locally but also globally, to bring in ideas where we can get the best thinking, and apply those solutions locally. We need to take information about energy-water nexus points and build on those concepts. We’re interested in ideas that help us think differently about how we create solutions designed to tie together energy and water services while at the same time providing enhanced opportunities and benefits to the community.”

Other speakers included longtime, battle-hardened government policymakers and regulators, industry product manufacturers, financiers and investors, writers and social activists, individuals who all paused in their busy lives to share with the summit ideas, and to scrutinize efforts underway to bring the utility sectors into the rapidly converging, digital, 21st century, socially-restless, pandemic age.

Consensus also existed that digitization – the ability of utilities to flatten and streamline both internal and external communications, information flow, and decision-making – is the cohesive force enabling and driving modernization. Just as energy now flows in a two-way direction from many meters, so to does contact between utility and customer.

Another major theme heard frequently at WE3 2020 was that utility modernization is responding to the global necessity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Renewable energy resources – solar and wind, primarily – are driving the decentralization and decarbonization of energy generation and distribution. Again, digitization of utility hardware and business processes – especially workforce and asset management including renewable integration onto the grid – was cited as a key factor in transforming traditional utilities into sustainable energy service organizations that support their “prosumer” and community customers.

Video recordings of WE3 Summit panel discussions can be viewed here. For further information, interested parties can go to Zpyrme or Smart Energy Water.