Firsts and Lasts

May 5, 2:23 pm

As I write this, I am five days past my one-year anniversary as UTC’s President and CEO, and five days out from the UTC annual conference, where I met many of you for the first time last year. I also recently completed my UTC “world-tour” by attending the U.S. Region 5 meeting in Bismarck, North Dakota, from April 18-21.

As I reflect on the last year, I can sum up my experience in a few short phrases: great people are involved; there is a real need for UTC, especially as utilities transition into a more customer-interactive functionality; we must constantly, and on an ongoing basis, provide membership value; and we must create and maintain clear lines of communication. Here at UTC’s offices in D.C., we have made structural and staffing changes that have enabled us to better meet the needs of the members and, with the Board’s help and approval, we have created a strategic membership plan that began to be executed in January. I have mentioned this effort several times in this blog, and will continue to highlight different aspects of the plan and its implementation throughout the rest of the year. If you ever have questions on the plan, feel free to contact me.

There are many other issues we have tackled over the last year, large and small, and some of those issues are also ongoing, including engaging more heavily on advocacy here in D.C. Sharla Artz, V.P. of Government Affairs and Cybersecurity Policy, and Brett Kilbourne, V.P. of Policy and General Counsel, are fighting the good fight on members’ behalves on two pressing issues – rolling back the inappropriate and unjustified decision by the FCC to grant a waiver to Higher Ground, LLC to operate in the 6 GHz band (thereby jeopardizing the existing utility fixed microwave systems in the band), and pushing back on the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking, notice of inquiry and request for comment related to electric utility pole attachments and copper retirement by commercial communications carriers that, if finalized as drafted, would force electric utility customers to further subsidize global telecommunications corporations and would make it easier for carriers to discontinue services to electric utilities.

The federal government is “talking out of both sides of its mouth” regarding its expectations of utilities. On one side (where the FCC resides), its actions are louder than words – a steady drumbeat of decisions equating utility’s critical operations and the need for reliable spectrum with general commercial endeavors like selling pizza or providing satellite phones to hikers and bikers (the latter in the case of Higher Ground). On the other side (where Congress, the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy reside), there is a different message, which is “electric utilities are the most critical of critical infrastructures in the entire country so they should be heavily focused on, and invested in, security (physical and cyber), resiliency, and safety.” In other words, electric utilities are at the center of the target. For those gas and water utility members, your target is pretty close to the middle as well. So, what gives? The simple answer is stove-piped regulatory authority at the FCC and little knowledge of the way utilities use information and communications technology for critical applications. We can change this dynamic through engagement and education and by encouraging dialogue among both regulatory and cabinet-level agencies that have jurisdiction over issues impacting many parts of our economy and critical infrastructure. The bottom line is that this will require active engagement from UTC’s members and coordination with our members’ D.C. offices and consultants.

As part of this increased engagement, we recently partnered with NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) and AAR (American Association of Railroads) in a meeting with the FCC on the Higher Ground waiver issue. I also gave a comprehensive advocacy update at the Region 5 meeting in Bismarck, where several utilities have microwave systems in the 6 GHz band, and all utilities care about pole attachments. Getting to know the folks who will be advocating “in the trenches” with you is a key component of being effective – whether on spectrum, pole attachments, cybersecurity, broadband, or tower lighting policy. So, it was great to get to interact at Region 5 with some of Kathy Nelson’s (UTC’s Vice Chair, and incoming Chairwoman) colleagues at Great River Energy as well as with folks from Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Dairyland Power Cooperative, East River Electric Power Cooperative, Minnesota Power, Alliant Energy, Minnkota Power Cooperative, Manitoba Hydro (we like our friends north of the border!), Otter Tail Power Company, Rushmore Electric Power Cooperative, Montana-Dakota Utilities, and Western Area Power Administration.

Now to the Region 5 meeting – my first visit to Bismarck was eye-opening – with Basin as the host utility, they introduced us to North Dakota via an evening event at the IMG_1579North Dakota Heritage Museum. This facility had an incredible dinosaur display which educated us on the unique attributes of ancient North Dakota. The shallow lake-like basin was at various times flooded and tropical or with grassy plains and low temperatures – this geography and climate cycle has enabled incredible recent dinosaur fossil finds, but has also created a wealth of fossil fuels (which, as most people know, are created from biomatter millIMG_1580ions of years old) that have only recently been accessible with modern drilling techniques. For electric utilities in the region, the dominant fuel source has been from fossils – coal — but many of the utilities at the Region 5 event reported on their heavily diversified fuel portfolios. They have integrated intermittent fuels like wind and solar that require an increasing focus on ICT efforts and grid management at a heavily granular level – mostly at the bulk power system level at the moment, but increasingly also at the distribution level.

As my last regional meeting of my first year at UTC, I was happy to meet the hard-working people of Region 5 and learn about their challenges, which align closely with the challenges I have heard about in other regions in the U.S. and even internationally. I look forward to entering my second year at the helm of UTC, working with Kathy Nelson as Chair, to help our utility members meet those challenges. Until we meet again…