As Congress works to craft broad energy legislation, the electric power industry is working to cultivate the next generation of innovators who will surely be needed to implement game-changing technologies into the electric grid.

Jump-starting those game changers is the idea behind today’s Challenge Festival in Washington, D.C., where more than 70 entrepreneurs from around the world are competing for $650,000 in prizes in four areas, including energy and sustainability.


It’s a worthy challenge, considering the opportunity that exists to innovate around how we use energy in our daily lives, and what a significant undertaking obtaining a cleaner energy future is. As a judge in the energy and sustainability category and as a representative of the Edison Electric Institute, a sponsor of the event, I am excited by the kinds of breakthrough technologies we’ll surely see today.

Take, for example, one of last year’s Challenge Cup winners, Plugsurfing, a mobile app that allows drivers of electric vehicles to quickly locate charging stations and process payments on their mobile devices, quite literally putting the power in the consumers’ hands and making electric vehicles more accessible.

So, how is the electric power industry leading the way to ensure that tomorrow’s innovations become a reality?

Newsflash: utilities are, in fact, working at breakneck speed to integrate new innovations onto the grid as they come to market, and very much have a role to play in driving innovation more broadly.

As we transition to a low-carbon and digital future, the electric power industry is developing and leveraging new technologies. More than any time in recent memory, the U.S. electric power industry is in the midst of a major, long-term transformation, and utilities are innovating every day when it comes to how electricity is generated and delivered.

Case in point: we are investing more than $90 billion each year, on average, to transition to a cleaner generating fleet and to enhance the electric grid. Utilities are increasingly integrating more renewable energy resources, particularly solar and wind, in their generation portfolios.

For example, many people don’t realize that electric utilities are the largest source of installed solar capacity in the U.S. today. Large-scale utility solar capacity now amounts to 60 percent of all installed solar capacity—and utility solar capacity is expected to triple by the end of 2016.

Electric utilities are also partnering with cutting-edge technology companies that are helping them realize the full promise of their investments in the smart grid, providing them with end-to-end system visibility. From self-healing technologies that help to more quickly identify and fix power outages, to technologies that help to integrate diverse distributed energy resources, utilities are working hand-in-glove with technology partners to bring customers the benefits of a smarter grid.

Our industry is also focused on expanding electrification of the transportation sector. From electric vehicles to utility fleets to charging stations to seaports and airports, electric transportation enables utilities to support environmental goals, build customer satisfaction, reduce operating costs, and enhance national security by using more of our domestic resources.

The smart meters and smart rates being deployed nationwide also give customers more options and provide new services—bill management tools, energy use notifications, energy efficiency, and smart pricing programs. And the data collected by smart meters allows utilities and customers to better analyze electricity usage to see if it can be tightened or made more productive.

Looking at the bigger picture and how we connect the dots, the starting and end points will always be consumers. Customers today expect to be connected all the time and everywhere, and they want to be able to plug in all of their devices and access new services. At the same time, they expect utilities to continue to sustain a power grid that supports their needs, while also giving them flexibility and choice in how they use energy.

In today’s rapidly changing energy industry, it’s critical that a balance is struck between the onboarding of new technologies with the reliability and resiliency of the grid. As we continue to incorporate innovation and technology into the power system, it must be done in an evolutionary, not revolutionary, way. It is important that large-scale systems work hand-in-hand with distributed generation technologies; that micro-grids and storage batteries are in balance with traditional transmission towers and lines—complementing one another, instead of competing against the other.

Thoughtful planning and strategy will be needed to construct a balanced, aligned system. This is where partnerships will be critical, and where technology partners like today’s finalists can play a significant role in our industry’s ongoing transformation.

While it’s difficult to predict what our industry will look like 20-30 years from now, our success is contingent upon the strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts that we are charting today, in part through events like the Challenge Cup. Through connected conversations, collaboration, and partnerships, we can define a successful energy future together.

Wolff is Edison Electric Institute executive vice president of public policy and external affairs.