Quick Take:  By now you are thoroughly sick of hearing me hammer at utilities to speak up about the future they want. Our industry has hit a tipping point. Bellwether states such as New York are already rethinking the regulatory compact. Unless utilities become part of those discussions, they’ll end up in a future designed by others.

That’s why I wanted to pass along this interview the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) conducted with one of its members, Nick Wagner, who is part of NARUC and who sits on the Iowa Utilities Board. He talks about how utilities and regulators can find common ground in this time of transition.  Along the way, he identifies three states he believes have the right balance. (He gives his own state a good grade.)

I think it is telling that an organization originally founded to work on technology — technology interoperability, to be more specific — found it necessary to also dialogue on regulation. Better technology is not enough. It must be coupled with better energy policy.  – Jesse Berst 

Nick Wagner on regulators vs. utilities 

What is the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel’s (SGIP) role in regulations and policy as it pertains to the smart grid?

SGIP provides a forum where regulators can access critical information. This includes the opportunity to exchange conversations with relevant stakeholders, share experiences with peers, stay up to date on industry happenings and technical activities, collaborate to solve industry challenges, stay apprised of new applications/products and receive reminders about the importance of interoperability. SGIP gives regulators the tools to better shape informed opinions.

Why is it important for utilities to have a stake at the table early when discussing policy? What’s the direct impact on utilities?

Early and frequent collaboration between utilities and regulators is critical to efficiently evolve the grid. Utilities and regulators can share information and identify available and desired resources, benefitting utilities that are choosing what to implement.

How can utilities and regulators come together successfully to shift their business models in tandem with the evolving Smart Grid industry?

There is transformation that needs to happen on both sides. As utilities shift their business models, regulators should identify areas they can help utilities navigate the transition. While there are not many significant changes to the current regulatory models, there are tweaks regulators can make to make this evolution a little easier on utilities. Engaging in collaborative discussions is critical in creating a modern, efficient and reliable grid that we can provide to consumers – which is the end goal for both utilities and regulators. Both parties are aiming to provide the best, least expensive and most effective system for consumers. Regulators and utilities are much better positioned to enable this as a team rather than adversaries. SGIP can be a neutral ground for this collaboration.

What are some examples of a great working relationship between a state’s utilities/regulatory bodies? What are they doing right?

Utilities and regulators that maintain the strongest relationships recognize the same goal, understand that they are “in this together,” and aim to provide the best service for consumers. States that do a good job with this include Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

How can SGIP better facilitate the collaboration between utilities and regulators?

SGIP can continue to facilitate discussions on different industry pain points and topics. It’s key that SGIP understands the landscape and perspectives of involved parties. A major benefit of SGIP is the access to case studies and success stories. SGIP also provides an unmatched opportunity for interaction and discussion. Regulators see value in understanding what utilities are doing and learning, something that we don’t get in our day-to-day activities.

Any examples of current issues or policy that are in focus currently or will be in the near future?

An organization that remotely touches energy is looking at distributed generation from some perspective. As a result, there is a lot of emphasis on the utility business model. Storage is a hot up and coming topic, and cybersecurity and resiliency remain an important focus.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s so critical for all stakeholders to remind themselves that consumers are ultimately who we are impacting. As we modernize the grid, we must remember that this is a never-ending endeavor. We will never reach a point where we can throw our hands up and say, “Phew – we’ve made it.” The grid has always been smart, and we are continuing to make it more modern through upgrades. Involved parties must stay apprised of the constantly evolving industry and ensure that they are analyzing operations to ensure cost effectiveness.

Nick Wagner began serving as a member of the Iowa Utilities Board on May 24, 2013. He serves on NARUC’s Committee on Gas, Committee on Critical Infrastructure and the Washington Action Program. He is the treasurer for Smart Grid Interoperability Panel 2.0 (SGIP). Prior to joining the Board, Wagner was the Director of Quality Management for the ESCO Group in Marion, Iowa. Wagner served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 2008 to 2012.