Five Questions with Steve Hauser

Part of a series of insights from leading smart-grid, clean-energy, and utility experts speaking at gridCONNEXT 2017 in Washington DC, December 4-6. Questions asked by Clean Edge managing director and gridCONNEXT co-chair Ron Pernick.

Ron Pernick: What was your first job (and I mean your very first job) – and what did it teach you for your current career?

Steve Hauser: Growing up in a rural farming community, I mowed lawns and hauled hay as a young kid. My first two real jobs in late high school and college were for mom-and-pop manufacturing companies in Portland, OR. The first was making fishing weights serving the area’s fishing industry. (I did spend a lot of time breathing in molten lead fumes – which some say explains a lot about me.) For three summers, I made chalkboards (the enamel coated steel type in 10 different colors) for schools. They recruited me when I graduated from college to be the factory foreman. I turned them down and instead went to grad school. I learned a lot about the realities of supply and demand from my early work experiences.  

Pernick: I often feel that there’s a false dilemma/dichotomy between clean-energy growth and grid stability. What’s your take? 

Hauser: There is no doubt that the significant increase in clean-energy technologies will change the way we operate the grid over time. However, most of those changes are inevitable, because of breakthroughs in storage, sensors, IOT, etc. When you think about how much other industries have changed in the past 100 years, a change of this kind is probably overdue for our electricity infrastructure.  

The basic paradigm created decades ago that allowed (and even encouraged) customers to use as much energy as they wanted, anytime and anyplace, drove massive expansion and satisfied many basic human needs for security, safety, productivity, and comfort. Now we need a different model that throttles back unfettered consumption and still affordably meets basic needs, while doing it cleanly and efficiently. Much like we polluted our waters for many decades and realized we had to course correct, we are now realizing we are using up our “commons” in a way that needs to be better managed.  

Pernick: Every couple of years your organization publishes the Grid Modernization Index (GMI). You have a new one coming out shortly. What does the GMI tell you about what’s working and what’s not at the state level?

Hauser: Our last GMI is almost 2 years old now, but on a scale of 1-100 only 10 (including D.C.) scored above 50, meaning 41 states scored below 50. It was a wake-up call for us and the industry on how far we still have to go. I’m not ready to talk about our new scores but we’ll see some different trends. Many more states and utilities are increasingly active, and we are seeing this reflected since we score much higher for full implementation than for just planning changes or “testing” new ideas. The real challenge for the industry over the next few years is about scale: going from 10MW to 10GW scale deployments; from a few hundred customers to hundreds of thousands. 

I talk about the “speed and scale” of deployment much more now than in the past, and all the challenges that come with those two things.  

Pernick: A growing number of cities and states are calling for up to 100% renewables. From your vantage point, what are some of the key technological and/or regulatory breakthroughs that are required for utilities (and the communities they serve) to meet increasingly ambitious clean-energy goals?

Hauser: Great question. One of the important things that I emphasize often with stakeholders is that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Utilities and communities have different priorities and constraints. What will work for Hawaii in meeting their RE goals might not work for Vermont, let’s say. What works for Chattanooga might not work for Fort Collins or Houston or Chicago.  We clearly must find a way to create a new common “platform,” a new language if you will, for integrating edge-of-the-grid resources. And we must modify regulations and business models to account for the shift in capital away from large (expensive) central assets to small distributed assets, without compromising the health of grid operators and the reliability of the entire system.  

I heard recently that Microsoft has been granted permission to take their large campus in Redmond WA off the local utility and buy wholesale power themselves (somewhat akin to municipalization). They have, of course, negotiated an agreement that requires them to continue to financially support the local grid and community priorities (such as low-income programs), but this type of development creates new technical and regulatory challenges, for sure. 

Pernick: What would you say are the biggest differences in the industry today from when you started working in the field more than three decades ago?

Hauser: Wow, three decades (and a little more). 

I recently remarked to a large audience I was speaking with that I remember being required to use a slide rule in my freshman (college) physics class and that in my sophomore year they let us use (HP 45) calculators for the first time. I remember programing my first Apple computer in the lab (using Basic) for collecting data on my experiments in the lab. I did my senior engineering project by designing a solar pond (using saltwater to collect and store solar thermal energy) in 1976. I flew across the country to NYC (for my first visit) to present my findings at a major engineering conference.

Back in the early ‘80s – while a lot of work was being done in the labs on solar, wind, geothermal, and more – very little had commercial potential (although we all thought it did). So, from a technology standpoint, a lot hasn’t necessarily changed in that we are working on the same technologies. Solar, wind, batteries, even microgrids are not new. What’s changed is that we can now produce them at a scale and price that is competitive in the market. 

The ability to create, collect, and analyze data has probably been the biggest change since I entered the workforce. It has enabled us to do things we could only dream of when we only had Apple 2Es, original IBM PCs, and HP calculators. And I think we are only scratching the surface of what it can still do for us in the energy industry.  


About Steve Hauser and gridCONNEXT

Steve Hauser, CEO of GridWise Alliance and co-chair of gridCONNEXT, is a nationally and internationally recognized expert on transforming the power sector to meet future economic, environmental, and energy security mandates. For more than 30 years, Hauser has been a leader in clean energy and smart grid technology development efforts including solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles, GIS software, geothermal, micro-grids, fuel cells, and building energy efficiency. Hauser was the driving force behind the creation of the GridWise Alliance, the Global Smart Grid Federation, and related smart grid organizations. Since 2000, he has brought together hundreds of companies to create a broad industry vision to transform the electricity sector, policies, markets, and technologies. Previously, Steve held senior management positions at NREL, Gridpoint, CH2M Hill, and SAIC. He currently serves on various advisory boards and committees.

gridCONNEXT, scheduled for December 4-6, in Washington, DC, is hosted by Clean Edge and GridWise Alliance. The conference provides an unprecedented opportunity for utilities, policymakers, regulators, investors, businesses, service providers, end-users, and other stakeholders to explore policies and share best practices on building a modern 21st century grid. For more information, visit www.gridconnext.com .