This Summer's Conferences Virtual-Style


Summits in This Summer in Shorts

Fortnightly Magazine - August 2020

Haven't had to put on long pants, very much, in these months of the pandemic. I know you didn't notice, in that Zoom meet we had the other day. Been cycling through my portfolio of shorts, which, when topped off by a somewhat clean button-down shirt, suits well the situation of day-long digital dialoguing. As for my blazers and, jeez, my ties, soon it may be time to stuff them in a self-storage unit.

The season of summits, that is, the summer, has now arrived. In late July we "went" to NARUC's summer policy summit, and similarly to the smart cities and communities summit, which Denton's hosts. We do need to expand our definition of "hosts." Coming up in August is the annual conference of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, typically a tremendous get-together. This year, we'll all get together kinda. This I want to know, though. How do you hug an old friend at a virtual conference?

NARUC went all-out to create the atmosphere of a gathering without there being an actual gathering. It set up ten-minute one-on-ones with commissioners, as if you bumped into them in the hallway of a conference hotel. It set up the spotlight session, with yours truly designated as the emcee extraordinaire, for a stream of two-minute speeches by twenty fast-talking notables. Like the soapbox luncheon that Public Utilities Fortnightly held at last summer's summit, sans the chicken and string beans plated-lunch. My desktop gong came in handy, which I struck hard and loudly whenever a two-minute speaker — whether a commissioner or a utility exec or an association head — used up their two minutes and was still going strong. I had never before experienced such a feeling of absolute power. 

NARUC even arranged for a summer summit social with somewhat live music and sometimes funny comedy. Quoting Wayne's World, "Excellent!"

Summer policy summits aren't all about catching up and having some fun. Utility commissions in the time of COVID-19. How to respond to the societal challenge of systematic racism. Ganging up on natural gas when the grid and consumers are so very dependent on this fuel. Confronting the digital divide as broadband has become a necessity. Patching up the cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the grid's supply chain. Ok, can we agree that utility regulation and policy has a whole lot on its plate right now. And, almost forgot, aren't we still transitioning the grid to a very-low carbon future? 

Since commissions' north star is the public interest, and since utilities aim to be customer-centric, the distress facing millions of households demands our careful consideration and decisive action. As affordable as utility service has become in recent years for the overwhelming majority of households, the stresses on many of them has put timely utility bill payment out of reach. Perhaps you thought, back in April, that this was going to a problem for two or three months. Think again. As I write this, coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and fatalities are rising in most states and consequently, commerce is again gearing down.

Just imagine for a moment if this pandemic suddenly went poof, say, in time for the NARUC's annual meeting this November. It's a pleasant daydream for sure. Although, we'd all be forced to snap back, from the socially-distancing we've adopted, to old-style socially-interacting. Personally, I'd need a few weeks at least to get back to it, flying around the country, meeting face-to-face at distances of less than six feet, and worst of all, wearing dress slacks daily. 

On the other hand, I really do miss some things. A hearty handshake with an industry buddy. That warm smile after a shared recollection. A chance run-in with a colleague from so many years ago. The meeting where, after a clash of views, a consensus forms and takes hold. Grabbing a cup at the hotel Starbucks with a key player and hearing which formation they're fielding next.

Anyway, back to reality. This pandemic isn't going away for a while. Best to make the best of it. Which means tuning in to the great virtual events. And, which means, getting comfortable doing so. Which means, for me and probably a lot of you, wearing your summer shorts below camera range during all those Zoom meetings.