The job of a CIO is always a very demanding one, perhaps even more so for a major utility company. At PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric), which provides energy services to more than 15 million people, Karen Austin and her IT team play a significant role in keeping the lights on (literally) in Northern and Central California. Karen was appointed SVP and CIO of PG&E in June 2011, which was a critical time as PG&E sought to transform itself into a more nimble and innovative company. In this interview, Karen will share with The IT Corner her thoughts and perspectives about her vision, IT challenges, opportunities and what makes PG&E IT a unique place to work.
What is your vision for IT?
I came to PG&E because I knew my consumer products background would bring a customer-focused approach to the utility industry. My team is positioned to strengthen PG&E’s IT backbone so that when our field crews make gas safety upgrades or add new outage sensors to power lines, we can process, store, analyze and use the data to improve customer service. That’s why I’m here, to deliver technology that helps the rest of PG&E deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers.
How do you motivate your team, and the extended team, to embrace your vision?
My leadership style is about communication. It’s my responsibility to make sure my employees embrace the company’s vision and feel strong ownership and pride in their work. We discuss our business priorities, and how to match our technology projects to the infrastructure upgrades the rest of the business is driving. We need to upgrade our gas and electric systems, keep the public and our employees safe and make power affordable for customers. With these goals in mind, I determine with my team how we will roll out new technology and systems. A few examples include: new data centers to build in redundancy so IT systems stay strong and robust, mobile devices for field personnel to make their jobs simpler and more efficient, and sensing equipment that improves reliability. My plans and my vision become my leaders’ goals and objectives, and that in turn becomes part of the everyday work for each developer, information architect and technologist on our 1,600-person team.
What’s your view of technology vendors in general, and what role do they play in bringing your vision to life?
Our vendors play a key role in partnering with the industry to develop innovative solutions that will help both our customers and PG&E more effectively manage energy use and improve our ability to operate the power grid more reliably and safely.
How do you compete for talent? And what makes PG&E a great place to work?
The utility is going through one-of-a-kind upgrades to the power grid. We are moving from standard pipes and wires to pipes and wires strengthened by a sea of information that will give us real-time insights into customer energy usage and grid health. The opportunities that lie ahead and the leadership we have in place gives us an attractive proposition to recruit the best and brightest IT experts.
On the topic of emerging technologies like big data, how do you envision big data adding value to your business and customers (e.g., how is SmartMeter data used?)?
More than two decades ago, using our reliable, slower methods to outage restoration--for instance, during a storm or a natural disaster like an earthquake--it took a lot longer to get things back to normal.
Now, our teams can pinpoint outages by pinging our 9-million-plus SmartMeter network. During an outage, meters signal that their customers are without power. We piece those “last gasp” communications together, figure out the hardest-hit areas, deploy our teams strategically, and repair what’s broken. We can restore critical services to our customers hours, days or weeks faster than before. Even six years ago, instead of the largest AMI network on this continent, we were still relying on phone calls to activate our outage response teams. We didn’t have a clear sense of restoration priorities then, either–but we do now.
The opportunities for leveraging big data beyond disaster recovery are numerous. We can get rid of older, less advanced line monitoring technology because SmartMeters are replacing the outage reporting sensors we had used on our electric system for years. A couple decades ago, we wanted to get a better sense of how widespread and complex an outage was so that we could deploy the right crews to the right locations. Sensors equipped with a radio were a brilliant idea, but now, with more than 9 million SmartMeters across Northern and Central California, we have far more data points; those old sensors can be retired.
Besides having real-time outage information for our customers when they call us, we’re working on showing premise-level outages to our customers. That way, if there is a temporary, momentary outage, or an occasional extended outage, the customer will know when it started, the cause and the potential restoration time.
Equipment failures are a key reason for distribution system outages for most electric utilities. With big data intelligence, we can better monitor the health of our electric assets and avoid equipment failures and their resulting outages. Using SmartMeter data to figure out which transformers across our electric system are bearing the lion’s share of the load, we can replace overworked transformers before they break down.
Understandably, reliability is a big focus for our customers. They want the lights to stay on, and if the lights go out, they want them to come back on quickly. So we're insisting on putting the customer first by delivering safe infrastructure. Customers want more reliable gas and electric service, and we’re working hard on that. And, to make the price of energy more affordable, we’re helping build better rate options.
To sum up, big data is pervasive, and what’s most important, its usefulness goes beyond utility efficiencies and directly to our customers, to make their lives better.
As you work on transforming your IT organization, what are the technical challenges you're focusing on?
As the demand for business-enabling technology increases, so does the complexity of integrating all the technology. The other technical challenge ahead of us is big data. With more data comes a higher expectation for information that will be helpful both to customers and to those running the utility business.
PG&E is a key contributor to the White House’s Green Button initiative. What is your IT organization doing in terms of green IT? Could you describe your green IT efforts (e.g., how green are your data centers?
We partnered with the White House, SCE and Sempra to make energy data available for our customers, using a standard format. The Green Button initiative has jump-started the development of applications that will help customers become even better energy managers.
Making this information available—in simple standard formats—helps spur the development of innovative consumer applications and devices from entrepreneurs, big companies, and even students. Imagine being able to check your air conditioner from your smartphone, or buying a clothes dryer that saves money for you automatically during critically hot days, or simply getting some helpful customized hints on how best to save energy and money in your house or apartment.
Within a few months and after a small investment, we were among the first utilities to deliver a common standard for Green Button in California. Once the rest of the country adopted the format, more than 30 million households across the country can now download their detailed energy usage information online.
And Green Button has already made a tremendous difference in our customers’ lives. For example, PG&E customers Kelly and Jim live near San Luis Obispo. Like many Americans, they need to save money. Last year, they sold their house and moved into a modest rental home near San Luis Obispo. But downsizing their home by 50 percent still didn’t drastically lower their electric bill. Kelly was determined to cut her energy expense, and she did. In six months, the family’s monthly bill went from $160 to $50, an annual savings of $1,300. Kelly contacted us to say that her family saved 70 percent on their bill, thanks to Green Button.
On the topic of "green IT", we've adopted energy efficiency best practices in the data center, procurement process and even at the individual level. We've achieved a greater level of efficiency in our data centers through energy efficient cooling (new chillers, convert Computer Room AC CRAC units to Variable speed fans), cold isle containment pods (cool the IT equipment in PODS vs cool the whole room) and energy/temperature monitoring sensors to optimize cooling (prevent over/under cooling) and server virtualization. On the IT procurement front, we're adding energy efficiency weighting in all IT product selections (servers, storage etc) and converting desktops to EPEAT standard. At the individual level, we are encouraging everyone to "think before you print".
With so much change and so many technology breakthroughs, how do you keep in touch, in sync and on top of new technologies?
Through participation in various forums (UNITE, EEI) and strong partnerships with innovative vendors.
What is the best part of your job?
Leveraging technology to truly make a difference for our customers. And developing talent – I love watching people grow and eventually have a huge impact on our business results.
Read any good books lately?
Yes. Wheat Belly – California has me hooked on CrossFit and Paleo. Both of them really help me balance the challenges of this role and my life outside of work.