If rhetoric were the primary measure of progress, at least one utility-industry leader would win high marks for moving from the old world of simply generating electricity to the newer, more complicated world of working with newfangled partners to manage it.
Ted Craver, CEO of the big Southern California utility company Edison International (EIX), told an audience at Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference in Austin, Texas on Tuesday that his industry is in transition. It once emphasized power production. Now it operates “the network that connects homes and businesses.” Utilities always have been network operators. But now that new entrants are in the electricity market—such as homeowners who generate solar power from rooftop panels—utilities increasingly need to play middleman. Said Craver: “That’s a natural place for utilities to be.”
Craver said good utilities are focused on the desires of their customers, eliciting some chuckles from the audience. His comment provoked a gentle rebuke as well from Lynn Jurich, CEO of solar-panel leasing firm Sunrun (RUN), who praised Craver but noted that utilities had challenged Sunrun in 40 instances. (Utilities tangle with rooftop installers over the impact they have on legacy electric systems.)
The executives spoke on a panel about the impact renewable energy is having in various spheres. John Woolard, who manages energy projects for Google (GOOG), said 2,000 employees drive electric vehicles to work each day, presenting unique challenges around charging-station provisioning. Woolard also said Google has made $2 billion worth of investments in renewable energy projects, typically in situations where traditional capital would be difficult to raise. (An example: the Shepherds Flats wind farm in eastern Oregon.)
Google’s goals in making these investments, Woolard said, are “great returns and to advance decarbonization of the power supply.”
As a final note, that word, decarbonization, was everywhere at Brainstorm E and was new to me. It strikes me as an evolution of the language of the climate-change crowd, and a helpful one. Carbon as a fuel isn’t going away just yet. But decarbonization remains the goal as a means to the end of a cleaner environment.
For more on carbon, watch this Brainstorm E video: