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Rita Mix, AT&T’s Lead Marketing Manager—Utility Industry, spends a lot of time talking about the smart grid: a utility network that utilizes digital technology to deliver information and electricity from suppliers to consumers.
That Mix enters into her fair share of conversations about the smart grid isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how much educating Mix does in terms of touting the smart grid’s benefits to those responsible for operating today’s utility companies. The majority of utilities operate on decades-old analog systems. Unfortunately, these legacy systems can be accompanied by legacy thinking.
For example, it’s not uncommon to find utilities amortizing recently installed electricity-metering equipment over a 20 year span, even though technology changes much faster than that. Mix recalls that in 1985, she owned the first laptop on the market. It weighed 22 pounds, was limited to word processing, and she and her coworkers affectionately called the devices “luggables.” Mix wouldn’t think of using that device today, but if you live in a home built in 1985, chances are the electricity meter measuring your electric usage is at least as old as your home.
While the utility industry may lag behind the rest of the world in terms of its adoption of technology, Mix is hopeful. “It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” she explains. Utilities face a long list of challenges—increased demand, an aging infrastructure and workforce, increased regulatory pressures—and are looking for innovative solutions. Mix believes commercial carriers like AT&T can resolve a number of those challenges, the most obvious being to provide the communications backbone for utilities.
The key to such an evolution begins with education. Not just education of those in charge of utilities, but of the public. Historically, utilities have not been in the business of educating people, nor have they been in the business of building customer relationships, notes Mix. She likens the gradual shift taking place in the energy industry to the one that took place in recycling. At first, only a few diehards sorted, washed and hauled their recyclables to recycling centers. When trucks began to pick up items to be recycled at the curbside, more people joined in—although they still had to rinse and sort and they paid for the service. These days, but for newspaper, the only effort required is to toss recyclable items into one bin and the recycling company does the sorting and rinsing and the service is free. “It’s a whole lot easier now and there are a lot more people recycling as a result,” says Mix, who spent a portion of her career as a college professor. “We’ve barely started educating people about the smart grid.”