By David Kligman
PALO ALTO—Technology is playing an important role in PG&E’s gas and electric improvements, the utility’s chief information officer said Tuesday night (July 24) during a roundtable discussion with fellow technology leaders from Google, Wal-Mart and Juniper Networks.
Karen Austin said the need for technology is coming from everywhere—within and outside the company. PG&E’s technology team is working closely with its business partners to make improvements that are making it easier for employees to do their jobs and also improve customer service while making that service safer.
For PG&E’s core business, the utility is using technology to upgrade its pipes, wires and system components.
“What was once modern now needs to be upgraded,” Austin said during the 90-minute discussion hosted by the Churchill Club.
Austin pointed to PG&E’s recent rollout in Bakersfield of new high-tech intelligent switches that will reduce the amount of time it takes to restore power to customers during an outage. When an electrical outage occurs, the switches detect a short circuit, block power to the impacted area, communicate with a central computer and reroute power to keep as many customers powered as possible.
Technology also is driving the utility’s 9 million SmartMeters, which are helping customers better manage their energy use and helping PG&E more quickly restore outages.
Austin, who joined PG&E in 2011, is credited with quickly implementing technology changes to improve safety and efficiency. [See a recent Currents video interview with Austin.]
One of the topics was the challenge of dealing with massive amounts of data. PG&E, which has 110 billion meter reads per year, is in the early cycle of adopting cloud technology and exploring options for where to store data, Austin said.
And during a discussion of startups, Austin pointed to the utility’s pioneering work with the White House chief technology officer to develop a green button that easily allows customers to access their energy data. Earlier this year, PG&E participated in a contest to challenge third-party developers to create apps using that information.
“There were over 50 small companies, some of them individuals in their garages, developing solutions that leverage that data to help customers be more efficient with their energy usage,” she said.
The Churchill Club, a nonprofit Silicon Valley business and technology group, frequently hosts discussions to exchange ideas and opinions from some of the industry’s top leaders. Pasts guests have included Bill Gates, William Hewlett and Larry Ellison.
The purpose of the session was to highlight how technology has gone from a supporting role at companies to one that is transforming change.
“Technology becomes the business,” said Karenann Terrell, Wal-Mart’s CIO. “There’s no longer a support function.”
For a young company like Google, a major goal for IT is to improve the experience of its many employees.
“It’s really important to us to make the experience of working at Google better,” said Google CIO Ben Fried. “It’s the idea that technology is about empowering the employee, in addition to serving the business.”
E-mail David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.