On June 26, I attended the #Futureofwork: Building the New Energy Workforce event at MaRS Discovery District—one of the world’s largest innovation hubs, which is located right here in Toronto. MaRS is “an entrepreneurial venture designed to bridge the gap between what people need and what governments can provide.” They focus primarily on four sectors: Energy & Environment, Finance & Commerce, Health, and Work & Learning. This event considered the connection between both Energy & Environment and Work & Learning in order to explore how the energy sector workforce is changing along with considerable changes facing the sector as a whole.
Ron Dizy, Managing Director of the Advanced Energy Centre at MaRS, provided an introduction that gave context for the questions to be addressed by the panellists. The audience heard how the energy sector is currently facing challenges that require new approaches, ideas and talented innovators; but despite this need, energy utilities have so far not been successful at adopting innovation. With this in mind, five expert panellists with direct experience working within the energy sector, in customer care, or with new technologies such as artificial intelligence, discussed emerging challenges and whether or not the sector is prepared to face them.
The panelists discussed a broad range of new challenges that the energy sector is facing, including (1) a changing context in which utilities are operating, (2) a consumer base that has changing expectations and behaviours, and (3) changes occurring from within the sector itself.
- Changes in our energy systems (i.e. major growth in distributed energy resources and in local ownership) mean that the sector needs to service the old while also bringing these new developments online. In addition, as more consumers depend less on electricity from the grid and more on “behind the meter” distributed energy systems (e.g. net metering), rates for the remaining customers will rise. This is a challenge for utilities as much as it is an ethical question, as it could lead to increased inequality within the province.
- Customer expectations are changing and utilities are not equipped to understand many questions related to new technologies (e.g. solar and storage options). Customers are growing increasingly frustrated that utilities are unable to meet their needs or provide high-quality customer service.
- The sector is made up of an aging workforce, and as experienced staff leave, the sector needs to ensure that knowledge is transferred to younger employees in a seamless manner. Simultaneously, the sector also struggles to attract top talent, specifically to the areas where new, innovative employees are most needed.
Panellists agreed that the energy sector is struggling to address these challenges, and discussed why the sector is having such a difficult time. Several panellists argued that the energy sector lacks a culture of innovation because it is one of the most risk averse industries—which is of course understandable, considering that customers are counting on reliable service 24/7. It was also noted that utilities are unable to invest in research without having to justify an increase in rates, and cannot pivot when they see a better opportunity because they require permission from regulators to do so. These factors leave utilities in a tough position, and also encourage a culture that lacks the innovation required to face the wide-ranging challenges outlined above.
SOLUTIONS, OPPORTUNITIES (AND MORE CHALLENGES)
So, are utilities up to the task? When asked this question, one panellist quickly responded, “this is the big question,” and it seems that we may not yet have an answer. Panellists expressed mixed views as to whether or not utilities would be able to meet these challenges. Gord Reynold of Spark Power argued that utilities should just move out of the way in order to let innovators do what they do best. Other panellists agreed that the key players within the energy sector are likely to be different in the future. In this time of change, the sector requires a culture that allows people to experiment, and sometimes to fail, but the current business models for utilities does not allow for this culture of innovation.
Encouraging innovation throughout the energy sector more broadly involves attracting and retaining top talent, but panellists and audience members noted that the sector sometimes struggles to attract these individuals. It was argued that energy companies should consider not just their consumer brand, but their employee brand as well; companies should consider strategies for attracting talented employees, and also be able to live up to that brand when new talent has been hired. Encouraging innovation within energy companies requires that leaders encourage a culture of empowerment (i.e. establishing a culture of innovation from the top-down).
Panelists were also asked how will new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, will affect the sector. Panelists such as Ian Collins from CrowdCare, an AI-based consumer care solution, provided examples of how such technology can provide benefits. With these technologies, energy companies can:
- Predict peak demand and adjust our energy use accordingly;
- Forecast when wind or sun will be plentiful, as to find a better balance for intermittent renewable energy resources;
- Develop fault detectors in order to analyze the behaviour of equipment to proactively fix things; and
- Improve customer service through AI, which can analyze precisely what customers are looking for.
Of course, while many within the energy sector are excited about how these new technologies can provide solutions for major challenges, there is increasing concern that these technologies will lead to a reduced workforce. As one audience questioner pointed out, millennials are particularly concerned that they are training for jobs that may not exist by the time they enter the workforce. Panellists discussed that there may be a loss of jobs in the short term, and as this shift occurs it may be quite difficult for those employees who are impacted. Krista Jones, Managing Director of Work and Learning at MaRS, suggested, however, that most innovation is occurring at the task level, not the job level. This is important for job training considerations, as it will be increasingly important that employees can keep up the pace to evolve along with new technology.
- Changes in our energy systems and in customer expectations and behaviour are causing major challenges for the energy sector. At the same time, the sector is experiencing an aging workforce and is having difficulty attracting and retaining top talent.
- These challenges are not easily resolved within an industry that lacks a culture of innovation. Utilities, in particular, are in a difficult position because their business model is uniquely risk averse.
- There are opportunities for energy companies to encourage innovation through developing their employee brand to attract top talent, and encouraging an empowered workforce in order to retain that talent and promote innovation. It also appears likely that the major players in the energy sector may be different in the future.
- Additional opportunities are arising with the development of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and big data (e.g. cost-savings, improved performance and efficiency). These technologies, however, may also come with a new set of challenges for the upcoming generation, and job training will have to teach employees to evolve along with new technologies.