COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

SDG&E is creating the utility of the future

“Utility of the future” is a phrase with the imaginative sound of a MacGuffin, a movie or literary plot device that motivates or drives the action, but it’s now the real and central objective in James Avery’s working life as an executive officer of San Diego Gas and Electric.

Many have written and considered what the utility of the future might look like, but SDG&E has systematically taken concrete steps and moved toward a revamped structure that well serves customers while dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That must be at the core of any future utility.

SDG&E has repeatedly been recognized for its aggressive efforts to support deployment of renewable energy systems while managing the intermittencies produced by solar PV and wind power. Those efforts are in large part due to an institutional commitment by SDG&E, coupled with a personal vision long held by Avery.

Avery, previously the senior vice president for power supply, was recently given the newly created role of SDG&E’s chief development officer, a position that allows him to use his extensive experience, imagination and understanding of the physics and politics surrounding practical electrical systems to inform a framework that embraces renewable energy systems, energy storage and electrical transportation for the betterment of SDG&E ratepayers and, by reasoned extension, provide a practical model for others.

Avery is now charged with making a version of “the utility of the future,” presumably one that is both fair and actually functions. Such an entity will likely come about through engagement and changes in education, rate structures, technology and infrastructure. Most important, it must continue to perform its central function of providing reliable electrical power whenever and wherever needed.

SDG&E’s move is similar to a recent step by Apple, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, wherein “Jony Ive, the man responsible for many of Apple’s breakthrough designs, is now the company’s chief design officer.

“In the newly created position, Ive will ‘focus entirely on current design projects, new ideas and future initiatives…”

In a similar approach, Avery’s changed title and responsibilities free him from the multitude of complex administrative responsibilities attendant a high-level executive in a widely regulated environment. He is genuinely freed to think about and bring to fruition SDG&E as a “utility of the future.”

SDG&E has been acting by example since Avery first joined the utility, wisely choosing the sources of its electricity and positioning itself to engage its customers and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions using advances in technology and communications.

Personally driven by a commitment to “doing the right thing,” Avery has repeatedly taken steps to enlarge access to renewable energy systems, embracing wind power and rooftop and large-scale solar PV, implementing the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line and advancing higher renewable portfolio standards, while seeking to transform how utilities produce and provide power using a multipronged approach, including behavioral changes, incentives and technologies.

Equally important, Avery lives his beliefs.

In a Feb. 24 Utilitydive.com article and interview, author Davide Savenije observed: “Like many in SDG&E’s service territory, James Avery has a swimming pool, owns an electric vehicle and has solar on his rooftop. But he uses them a little differently.

“Avery has programmed his home to use energy at the right times of the day — when it will impact the system the least. He installed a controller on his pool pump to run when his solar panels are generating. He replaced the most-used lights in his house with LEDs and set them on timers. He set his air conditioner to pre-cool his house from midnight to noon, and not run after. And he charged his electric vehicle in the middle of the night.”

This interview provides insight into what pricing and time-of-use rates might do to create broad incentives for customers to act a particular way. It also reflects how educated behavior, motivated by the desire to do the right thing, can enhance the enjoyments life and simultaneously reduce the associated environmental effects.

A version of the utility of the future, one that fairly and economically serves customers, fundamentally reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as it provides what has become a central benefit of 21st-century modern civilization: electrical power increasingly produced using renewable sources.

San Diego has been a cradle or incubator for many advances in the modern world and thus it is fitting that it will now have the opportunity to provide a framework for how electrical power can provide low-emission and cost-effective energy for a wide variety of uses, including low-cost transportation that is nearly free of greenhouse gas emissions.

As a community, we should actively support this effort. One day, if successful, San Diego may well properly claim to be the original home of the utility of the future.


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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