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PROspectives: Val Jensen
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This article is from the January 2017 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP. Check out the list of AESP member benefits here.

PROspectives: Val Jensen


jensen.jpg Introduction
In this new series, AESP talks with the professionals in the industry who are doing interesting things, to share their unique point of view with AESP members. Our first guest is Val Jensen.
Val Jensen is the senior vice president for customer operations at ComEd where he is responsible for managing delivery of the company’s customer-facing products and services. Previously, he served as a senior vice president at ICF, and worked for the U.S. Department of Energy and the State of Illinois Energy Office. AESP CEO and President John Hargrove chats with Val to get his informed and thoughtful insights on the future of the industry.
John: Has ComEd implemented customer-engagement programs, and what is your experience with them?

Val: We don’t think in terms of customer engagement. We are more focused on customer experience.  Over the last four or five years, we have implemented a fairly broad program designed to improve the customer experience and I think we have seen some of that pay off in that our J.D. Power scores have climbed pretty substantially. One important piece of that relates to the engagement question; in J.D. Power’s world the extent to which a customer is aware of the energy efficiency programs offered by a utility has a pretty powerful influence on customers’ satisfaction. The more that customers know about what a company is doing, the more they tend to be satisfied with that company.  Energy Efficiency is one of those things that customers tend to associate with a good company and good customer service. So we have intentionally been much more aggressive in the last year or so in trying to get the message out to our customers about the energy efficiency programs that we have. Reaching out, touching the customer, and delivering something of value, and as a result, helping to reach the fairly ambitious energy efficiency targets that we have set. 

John: Do you see the grid being here, in place, useful and vibrant in 50 years?

Val: Certainly the grid we know today will evolve, but a physical infrastructure for managing transactions is going to be necessary to some extent. The architecture of the system likely evolves toward something that is much more decentralized as distributed resources propagate through the system, but we think that the most efficient, reliable and value-added system is one that still connects all of these distributed resources and loads in a network. We’re pretty firmly convinced that the physical network will need to be there in some way, shape or form.

That said, we tend to think of “the grid” as a complex platform that enables buyers and sellers of energy services to transact. We think of this platform as having four levels.
  1. The first of those levels is the physical grid.  The poles and wires that constitute the network.
  2. The second level above that is the planning and operation of that physical infrastructure.
  3. The third level is the mechanism for clearing the electricity transactions that happen on that network.
  4. The fourth level is where customers and sellers transact around a variety of products and services, one of which is obviously electricity. 
The value of this platform is a function of the number of things that can be done on it. And if you are just part of a little micro grid somewhere, cut off from the rest of the network, the number of things you can do is severely limited by the fact that you’re not interconnected with the rest of the system.  So it’s the ability of this platform to interconnect many buyers and sellers that creates value. It is hard to envision that function being performed without some sort of physical grid.

John: What do you see are four key trends disrupting the industry today? 

Val: Disruption is a popular way to look at it, but it’s also a bit limited; it implies that what is going on somehow shouldn’t be going on. We also don’t really think of trends as disruptors; trends come and go – they are in some respects ephemeral. We’ve tried to think about what is happening in the industry as consequence of several truths.  These are things that are going to play out no matter what happens. We may not be able to predict exactly how and when they manifest themselves, but if one traces their implications one can’t help but come to the conclusion that our business model needs to change. This isn’t a choice; it is a necessity.  These four truths are:
  1. Technology is getting better, faster, smaller, cheaper, more ubiquitous.
  2. This technology is increasingly interconnected and will continue to evolve in increasingly networked ways.
  3. This technology and its communication within networks is also throwing out more data about who we are, what we do, when we do it, how things are performing and what we like.
  4. Finally humans constantly seek choice and control. Virtually any social or economic system created that does not permit choice and control is unstable. Monopolies historically have not allowed choice. But as the first three truths continue to manifest themselves, customers’ ability to actually exercise those choices in a mindful and controlling way is going to increase and that will weaken the business model. 
Taken together, we think that these four truths will lead inevitably to a much more decentralized system and one that is increasingly participatory. As we have tried to trace the arc of these truths forward through time, we think there are a number of implications for how we need to be able to respond and that is the essence of this utility of the future and the strategy that we have been putting together. 

John: With the new administration in 2017 and potential stalling of the CPP, what do you think is the trajectory for energy efficiency programs for utilities around the country?

Val: EE policy and progress, aside from that affecting appliance efficiency, I think has always been driven at the state level, and will continue to be so.  Legislation recently enacted in Illinois (read more) significantly boosting EE investment shows the importance of stakeholders at the state level in setting EE policy.  And, particularly in light of some of the disaffection that so influenced last year’s election results, we have to remember the importance of connection with our customers. 

We can never assume that we know best just because we’ve been doing this for years. We have to understand how what we have to offer our customers can make their lives better on their terms.  If we dehumanize this - if we decide that we only have to worry about delivering on goals or meeting financial metrics - if we lose our connection to the customer - we will be in trouble. 

Some of us remember back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when restructuring started to sweep through the industry. Efficiency spending plummeted, in part because we did not have a strong connection with a constituency for the energy efficiency programs that were typically done as part of integrated resource planning. I think that can happen again if we lose touch with the customers and stop thinking in terms of what those customers’ needs are. 

John: What message do you have for industry stakeholders – those of us who have a role in shaping the utility of the future?

Val: We get all wrapped up in our own thing.  For example, in a company like ours where programs have become quite large, we sometimes get enamored with size and funding levels and what we’ve accomplished. We need to take a moment and recall that this accomplishment is built on millions of individual decisions by customers. If we stop working really hard to understand those decisions and tailor what we are doing for those customers, they’ll abandon us. That is the beauty and terror of customer choice. They can love you and still leave you in a heartbeat. The message for the whole industry is we have to work hard every day to remember who it is that we are trying to serve and why it is we think those customers can benefit from what we are doing. 

John: Speaking as an industry leader with many years’ experience, how does AESP serve your personal and professional needs? How can AESP further assist industry professionals?

Val: Wow, that’s an interesting question.  I joined AESP when it was the Association of Demand-Side Management Professionals way back in the first year of its existence. To me AESP has always represented the community of people who care about making a difference with energy efficiency. It’s a group of people who share a purpose. When things are difficult in the business, it’s a place to be with like-minded people and share stories and insights and come away energized. The National Conference is one of the few conferences that I still go to because, for me, it’s a way to revitalize that energy efficiency spirit and get back into the game.  For me it’s having a community of purpose-minded people out there, who can help me puzzle through problems, and who represent my personal journey for the last 35 years.  It’s a great feeling to have invested a lot of years in a career that is ultimately making a difference. 

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