Innovating For The ‘Next’ Customer

Steve Kidwell (Image credit: Ameren)

Though utilities in America’s Midwest can rely on battling the spiking demand and storm outages that come with every summer, Ameren is also exploring the disruptive innovations that may influence its customers’ future expectations.

“As part of our long-term planning process, we did an analysis looking out to 2030 and saw the potential for a disruptive step change in the way consumers get and use energy,” said Steve Kidwell, VP Corporate Planning at Ameren.

“We see the opportunity to leverage advances in technology to understand our customers’ needs better, to improve service options and delivery, and incorporate analytics and other tools to drive costs out of our business.”

The company also recognized it possessed a unique window to capitalize on those opportunities: Because its production prices were at historic lows, it had headroom compared to its brethren on the coasts or internationally, so now was the time to act.

Five Innovation Action teams were formed in late 2015 to engage in what Kidwell calls “divergent thinking” that focused in large part on customer analytics, since the company sees deeper understanding as key to not just identifying future customer needs, but building distinctive customer loyalty. “A monopoly business doesn’t provide customers with much choice in the types of services they may desire,” Kidwell said, noting that Ameren has just scratched the surface of the topic.

The teams were formed by getting a company leader to spearhead each area, and then inviting staff from across its 64,000 square mile service territory to voluntarily contribute time to the projects. The company converted previous warehouse space into what they now call “the Hub” where these teams converge and collide to share ideas, test theories and meet with other innovative thinkers in the energy technology space. Light management oversight was put in place, in hopes of encouraging self-driven initiative.

This past January, Ameren’s leadership explored a variety of opportunities identified by the innovation action teams or, as Kidwell calls them, “value pools” of revenue, new tech and expense reduction. They paid close attention to innovations that weren’t just focused on the far-off future, but could get tested and applied in the short-term, too.

One area is micro grids, which require a layer of control to integrate distributed sources of energy, especially wind and solar. Ameren opened a testing site at the University of Illinois in late 2013, and is now evolving the live grid to serve as a “sandbox” for testing new technologies and services, whether its own, or those from entrepreneurs and other third-parties.

Another team is focused on the Electric Vehicle market, where the company sees an opportunity to influence user behavior, and is looking at a handful of experimental programs to accelerate the buying value chain. One idea is to link roadside charging with a commuter population, via their employers, to provide data analyses in support of purchase and usage decisions.

Ameren is also exploring smart cities’ topics, such as using machine visioning to provide real-time updates on the status of its energy distribution network (known as “condition monitoring”), as well as investigating benefits which customers and communities could realize through the integration of new technologies into lighting infrastructure.

“Now we’re putting structure around the opportunities identified, to clarify strategic value and identify the actionability in the short term to MVP [minimum viable product],” Kidwell said, explaining that there are now more than a half-dozen project teams in action.

In addition to the teams, Ameren is engaged in a variety of innovation partnerships such as Energy Impact Partners, a coalition of some of the nation’s largest energy companies working collaboratively to innovate in areas such as sustainable generation, energy storage, energy efficiency, connected devices, big data and software solutions, and energy management.

“What we’re trying to do is inject longer-term thinking into shorter-term actions, which means getting out there to learn and test quickly, thereby accelerating the development cycle to bring new solutions to our customers. We hope that by leading today we can help transform tomorrow,” said Kidwell.