Wind of Change Challenging Utilities


Elon Musk’s appearance at the Edison Electric Institute’s annual convention was a “wind of change” moment.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2015

On Feb. 3, 1960 in Cape Town, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan shook up what was still the British Empire in Africa by telling the Parliament of South Africa that "the wind of change is blowing through this continent."

His remarks weren't well received by those who that thought it was premature, and that Britain would rule much of Africa for generations. The British ruling class in Africa - the established order - was shaken.

But Macmillan's speech was, in fact, a tacit recognition of the inevitable. It was the signaling of a brave new world in which Britain would grant independence to countries from Nigeria to Botswana and Kenya to Malawi. Britain would not attempt to hold the Empire together. His speech was seminal, in that Britain had signaled that things would never ever be the same.

To me, the appearance of investor and entrepreneur Elon Musk at the Edison Electric Institute's annual convention in New Orleans was a "wind of change" moment for the august electric utility. It was a signal that the industry was coming to terms, or trying to come to terms, with new forces that are challenging it as a business proposition in a way that it hasn't been challenged in a history of more than 100 years.

But whereas Britain could swallow its pride and start a withdrawal from its former possessions, the electric industry faces quite a different challenge: How can it serve its customers and honor its compact with them when people like Musk, who is the non-executive chairman of the aggressive company SolarCity, and a passionate advocate of solar electricity, and Google are moving into the electric space?

At EEI's annual convention in June in New Orleans, Musk didn't tell his audience what he thought would happen to the utilities as their best customers opted to leave the grid, or to rely on it only in emergencies, while insisting that they should be allowed to sell their own excess generation back to the grid. Musk also didn't venture an opinion on the future of the grid - and his interlocutor, Ted Craver, chairman and CEO of Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, didn't press him.

Instead Musk talked glowingly about the electrification of transportation, implying - but not saying outright - that the electric pie would grow with new technologies like his Tesla Motors' electric car.

The CEOs of EEI's board were ready for the press by the time they held a briefing a day after Musk's opening appearance. They spoke of "meeting the challenges as we have always met the challenges" and of "evolving" with the new realities. Gone from recent EEI annual meetings was CEO talk of their business model being "broken."

The great dark cloud hanging over the industry is that of social justice. As the move to renewables becomes a flood, enthusiastically endorsed by such disparate groups as the Tea Party and environmentalists, the Christian right and morally superior homeowners, and companies like SolarCity and First Solar, the poor may have difficulty keeping their heads above water.

The grid, the lifeline of U.S. social cohesion, remains at threat. Utilities are jumping into the solar business, but they have yet to reveal how selling or leasing rooftop units - as the Southern Company is about to do in Georgia - is going to save the grid, or how the poor and city dwellers are going to be saved from having to pay more and more for the grid while suburban fat cats enjoy their sense that they're saving the planet.

My sense is that in 10 years, things will look worse than they do today; that an ill wind of change will have reduced some utilities to the pitiful state of Amtrak - a transportation necessity that has gobbled up public money but hasn't restored the glory days of rail travel.

People like myself -I live in an apartment building - have reason to fear the coming solar electric world, for we will be left out in the cold. The sun will not be shining on those of us who still need the grid. It needs to be defended.

Lead image, Elon Musk, EEI video