EPRI Still Makes Sense
By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.gif.,
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Recently Celebrated its 25th Anniversary.
For the past 25 years EPRI has leveraged its members` contributions into significant research projects that no individual company could have supported alone. From nuclear safety analysis to fuel cells, from large-scale fluidized bed boilers to variable speed wind turbines, EPRI has teamed with utilities and manufacturers to bring major new technologies to market. This resource pooling worked well when utilities were not competing with each other: what was good for one EPRI member was, typically, good for many.
Now EPRI, a unique and valuable national asset, must deal with the uncertainty brought about by the current restructuring of the electric utility business in the United States.
The companies that fund EPRI research projects are now seeing the world through competitive glasses. Like others in highly competitive industries, they now recognize that improved products and better business practices are their keys to profitability and commercial success. They don`t want to share best practices and new technologies with their competition: they want to use these to beat their competition. As a result, some are cutting back on collaborative research.
Let me cite an example of why I think this does not have to be, and why it does not make good business sense.
I can think of no industry more competitive than computer hardware. There are many companies, large and small, competing fiercely in the personal computer market. Computers, printers, scanners, modems, etc. of all shapes and sizes, from a large number of companies, compete with each other on both price and features. Yet the industrycontinues to fund collaborative research by the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. (MCC). MCC identifies “precompetitive” technologies that can be useful to its member companies and develops them to the point where they become useful and commercially exploitable. This has, no doubt, contributed to the world leadership of the U.S. computer industry.
Similarly, the competitive electric business will have certain basic needs to be met if the industry is to play its rightful role in the growth of the U.S. economy. For example, the availability of new, more efficient, more reliable, more economical generation technologies is important to all electricity providers and users; environmental standards must be met by all; and most industry players have an interest in gaining more control over the complex processes of transmission and distribution. The competitive advantage will come from applying new basic technologies in innovative and appropriate ways.
I am reminded of when certain electric utilities fought EPRI`s development of the Utility Communications Architecture (UCA) because, even though this could save them money by making operations independent of the computer hardware supplier, they did not want their data to be intelligible to outsiders. The more enlightened companies said, “Give us the tools; we will decide how to use them to our own best advantage.” Now the industry generally regards the UCA as a valuable tool that enables the smooth functioning and coordination of ever-more complex systems.
It is time to re-evaluate the industry`s collaborative research opportunities. Utilities, gencos, ISOs, IPPs, energy marketers, merchant plant operators all have the need for certain basic knowledge and “precompetitive” technologies that can be obtained best by pooling their resources. Now is the time for all the industry`s players to invest in the next generation of productivity-enhancing tools for the electricity business. The structure and the knowledgeable people needed to do so are already in place at EPRI. p