Charging Hard on ESG: Stan Connally


Southern Co. Services

Fortnightly Magazine - November 15 2022

In recent years, EPRI has taken on the biggest energy issues of our time. Here comes another big one, the Climate REsilience and ADaptation initiative, or Climate READi for short. This project aims to harden systems for the more adverse environmental conditions ahead.

PUF spoke with Southern Company Services CEO Stan Connally and PG&E EVP-Engineering, Planning & Strategy Jason Glickman. An entrepreneur shared solutions too, with the addition of ChargerHelp! CEO Kameale Terry in the discussion.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Why Climate READi? Why is it a high priority for the industry?

Stan Connally: Our industry has been on the decarbonization journey for a long time, and we've had great success. Since 2005, the electric utility industry in the United States has decarbonized forty percent.

As our industry and companies like Southern Company, where I have the privilege to serve, lead the economy toward decarbonization and a clean energy future, we're mindful that we must balance customers' expectations of us. Customers and our communities deserve clean, safe, reliable, affordable, and increasingly resilient energy.

Reliability, affordability, and resilience are essential elements of our commitment to satisfying customers' needs. We also know that a changing climate can present threats to reliability.

Every day, reliability is keeping the lights on when the sun is out and there aren't any storms. Resilience is the ability to recover from nonroutine disruptions that include things like extremes of weather, or threats that are physical or cyber in nature. As an industry, we know that we must be prepared to mitigate, respond to, and quickly recover from threats that could represent potential impacts to our grid.

Climate READi is an effort by EPRI to convene the industry to collaborate more around adapting to the changing climate. The initiative is helping electric utilities explore what extremes of weather mean for us. It's helping further understanding, for example, how we need to adapt in our planning models and design criteria, and ways we can implement those planning models and design criteria to make our grids more resilient to those extremes.

We owe it to our customers to continually get better — whether it's in preparing for extremes of weather or for challenges like cyberthreats. All of that matters to customers because, at the end of the day, if we don't keep the lights on and the energy flowing, their daily lives, their businesses are impacted.

Climate READi is a great opportunity for us to convene and think about adaptation and how we become more resilient.

PUF: With impacts of weather from climate, without working at it, there could be outages of days for regions of a highly electrified economy. Why is this initiative important to the customer?

Stan Connally: You mentioned something important and that's the highly electrified economy. Electrification is an important tool in the toolbox to decarbonize. Think of some of the highly carbon-intensive processes of industrial customers. They may turn to us for ways to use electro-technologies.

That means the availability and use of our product will grow tremendously over time as we decarbonize. It also means the dependence on our product is going to grow over time.

We put ourselves in the shoes of our customers. We understand that their sensitivity to relatively brief outages will increase, and they certainly will be even more sensitive to longer-duration outages.

While our grids will never be perfect, we can prepare for extreme events. Whatever the mode of the outage, customers will expect us to keep the lights on while riding through the event or to restore power more quickly because of the investments we've made.

Even beyond that, our teams are becoming more resilient in responding in those situations. We expect of ourselves that we're always delivering to customers the value they need from us.

PUF: We're dependent upon electricity being there all the time and never being interrupted for a long period, so how is it going to be in 2040, 2050, with electric cars?

Stan Connally: An electric car is a great example. Think about some of the real risks our industry faces today; whether a wildfire that may require a utility to take proactive steps to create a safer environment, periods of drought or storm conditions like derechos and hurricanes.

In the future it's the car that's plugged into the wall when that event happens. The electrification of our economy — and electric transportation is a super example — is going to increase energy independence and the relevance of what we do for our customers every day.

PUF: What is EPRI going to do to address this climate need?

Stan Connally: READi is an acronym for REsilience and ADaptation initiative. EPRI always has been a collaborator within the industry and always has worked with partners, but this big-tent approach is of particular focus and importance with this effort. There are some important collaborations happening with Climate READi, specifically, that are worth noting.

The first is with the national labs. We have a tremendous network of national labs with great thought leaders who are innovators for our country. They do work related to the electric utility and the energy industry more broadly.

We collaborate with them through research and development and move further faster by having a partnership to think through these critical issues. We've been fortunate that the Department of Energy has been supportive of that.

Second, we're partnering with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The partnership with NOAA is an important one to work on the climate science. They can bring to EPRI — and then to the industry — data, tools, and modeling. It's not just the historic modeling, but the science of where surface temperatures on the ocean will be in 2050, for example.

What does that mean for climate across any of the continents? How do we take that information and model it into our own system's planning models at our utilities? We've got great historical context that we can lean on, but we also look at what future models are telling us. That's an important piece of the modeling side and one of the benefits of working with NOAA.

We have to work with our customers and our regulators to define what a more resilient system might look like and then make the appropriate investments around that on behalf of our customers.

Climate and weather extremes present a potentially significant and escalating risk because of their broad and compounding effects on power generation, transmission systems, distribution networks, and customer use.

Strengthening grid resilience against potentially chronic, long-term, widespread, and acute climate and weather impacts — both now and in the future — will require unprecedented collaboration across energy system stakeholders. Taking these proactive efforts now can help ensure resilient energy for customers in a decarbonized future.

Design standards are another area we're looking at. How do we think about designing the transmission grid of the future? Whether it's changing the design of overhead structures — the poles and wires — or rethinking how we can become more optimally invested in undergrounding as a strategy. We've got places in the country that are doing that today.

It starts with the modeling and goes all the way to the design standards. The partnerships we'll form in between will help do a great job of informing our customers of the need, informing our regulators of what resilience looks like, and ultimately, supporting us in making wise investments on behalf of all of them.

PUF: How is EPRI going to go about this project of Climate READi?

Stan Connally: This is going to involve a lot of utilities, both domestic and internationally. Southern Company is proud to be one of the first contributors and partners to Climate READi, and it will bring together many great minds from across the industry.

You can envision things like tests related to wind loading in which you might test certain designs to extreme levels or ice loading extremes — from the lab to the field.

At Southern Company, for example, we're analyzing transmission and distribution systems and even some generation assets, taking EPRI lab designs into the field in a pilot phase and at pilot scale, then ramping up over the long term.

EPRI has a great model for thinking about critical designs and working in the lab to test designs. Then, we've got partners through Climate READi who will be ready to take that to the field and try it.

PUF: How's it working?

Stan Connally: The beauty of EPRI is it's not just science. EPRI is working with practitioners like Southern Company, Con Edison and Commonwealth Edison who can take the science and the lab studies that EPRI can help develop to the field. That also helps educate regulatory groups.

NARUC is a good example. EPRI has always provided good technical perspective and insights for NARUC, helping them see what science and technology can bring to our customers.

I see that happening with Climate READi as well. READi will provide deeper insights to approaches for resilience, adaptation assessment, and risk mitigation while providing a critical forum for regulators and external stakeholders to engage and advance their understanding as they plan for the future.

The EPRI advisory council has ten standing members assigned and selected by NARUC. Having that external body of regulators, scientists, and constituents from the financial community helping us think through these critical issues, highlights the importance of the EPRI advisory council. And that's on the front end.

As we develop this approach to climate risk assessment, we are able to talk about them with the advisory council and help them understand how we'll put those new tools into practice. The full cycle of explaining resilience can happen through Climate READi.

PUF: Why do you invest so much of your energy and time into EPRI, into Climate READi?

Stan Connally: I have, throughout my entire career, worked in various places of our business where I've seen us respond to extremes of weather, extremes of other risks. I've seen the impact of catastrophic storms on customers, and I've seen what it means to restore hope — not just power — to communities.

It has real meaning to know that we can innovate in partnership with EPRI to further minimize the impact of risks on customers while creating more value for them. I get excited about that.

I see it as a very personal responsibility and privilege to represent Southern Company's views to EPRI and the industry and, in turn, to bring EPRI's views back to my company. That benefits both the organization I get to lead inside Southern Company, which includes our generation resources and our transmission business among others, and our entire system.

Southern Company is an innovative company with a research and development organization that's more than fifty years old. We are a founding member of EPRI.

Our industry and EPRI member companies are innovating as we build our future, and we need to constantly bring ideas back to our own teams. EPRI's been a great convener of that. I consider it an honor to be around the table with so many thought leaders and then be able to bring that back to my company to help us become better on behalf of customers.


Climate READi conversations: