Reality TV Meets Thomas Edison

Issue 9 and Volume 109.

Unless you’ve been stranded on a desert island for the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly seen one or more of the many “reality” shows dominating the TV programming landscape. From Survivor and Fear Factor to more sedate home improvement shows like While You Were Out and Trading Spaces, these reality shows have captured the imagination and interest of a broad swath of the viewing public.

A few recent announcements in the energy sector seem aimed at tapping into this fascination with the vicarious, but I believe they’ve done more than just spark curiosity. They’ve injected some ingenuity into an industry that, while always technically advanced, has struggled to capture the public’s imagination. And while some critics will say the announcements amount to superficial marketing gimmicks, I say, “So what?”

The Foxboro Automation unit of Invensys Process Systems announced a campaign in late June in which a control room in North America will receive a “makeover” valued at $350,000. An expert team of judges will identify the control room most in need of a facelift, and a legion of design, engineering, aesthetic and ergonomic experts will then perform a functional and cosmetic upgrade.

Beyond the obvious marketing and brand name recognition buzz that Foxboro and its partners expect to garner through this effort, there is a practical objective as well: “While we’re certainly trying to have some fun by launching this TV-reality-show-inspired ‘makeover’ campaign, we also hope to…encourage North America’s process plants to take the necessary steps to empower their operators by upgrading their control rooms,” said Paul Steinitz, marketing director.

The second announcement I’d like to comment on has to do with the controversial offshore wind project being developed by Cape Wind Associates off of Cape Cod, Mass. Project opponents are convinced the offshore wind turbines will destroy the natural beauty of the Nantucket Sound. Cape Wind and its supporters have fought mightily for the project – with a measure of success – but the opposition remains.

In a unique effort to simultaneously stare down the opposition and solicit their input, Cape Wind has announced a competition in association with the Boston Society of Architects to develop an overall “wind energy experience” that will integrate aesthetic, design and educational elements.

The entries must respect Cape Wind’s economic viability and engineering criteria, but beyond that, creativity is encouraged to identify and propose alternate “visions” for the project – e.g., secondary uses for the turbine field such as a water sports venue, an offshore sculpture garden, and a tourist attraction. While Cape Wind is not committing to adopting the vision of the winning entry, it will evaluate the entries to identify elements that can be cost-effectively integrated into the project design.

Finally, GE’s well-publicized launch of ecomagination reflects a business-based effort to tap into the broader public awareness and interest in all things green. While skeptics have labeled ecomagination a fraud – contending the campaign just wraps GE’s environmentally unfriendly industrial technologies in green clothing – the goals are quite substantial, and the strategic emphasis on making money from green business lines demonstrates a rather remarkable corporate shift. In short, GE is convinced that through innovation and technology development, a green focus will yield green returns.

Under ecomagination, GE will bump R&D spending on cleaner technologies from $700 million in 2004 to $1.5 billion by 2010; double revenues from products and services that provide significant and measurable environmental performance advantages to customers – from $10 billion in 2004 to at least $20 billion in 2010 with more aggressive targets thereafter; reduce greenhouse gas emissions 1 percent by 2012 and greenhouse gas intensity 30 percent by 2008 (compared to 2004 data); and publicly report its progress in meeting these goals.

“In 2005, GE is making a new commitment to our customers around the world to define the cutting edge in cleaner power and environmental technology,” said GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt. “We have taken a long look around and this is what we see – diminishing domestic oil and natural gas reserves…our continued dependence on foreign sources of energy…increasingly scarce resources like water in an ever more populated world…and the signs of global climate change – this is the convergence of forces that demands a revolution in technology so that our country can stay competitive.”

Revolution might be too strong a word, but whether it’s revolution or evolution, a greener world and a greener business landscape represent reality. Succeeding in this new reality will require innovation, imagination, and a heavy dose of determination to overcome the “fear factor” associated with humankind’s natural aversion to change.

Returning to our reality TV theme, some critics have openly wondered at the popularity of these shows. There really is no mystery. Just like the before and after photos that sell diet plans around the world, the transformational nature of reality and home improvement shows appeals to the human interest in “change” without experiencing the associated “pain” first-hand.

Face it, we’re part of the reality show that is the power generation industry. Painful at times, sure, but fun as well, and increasingly receptive to innovation and disruptive thinking.

Personally, I think it’s refreshing to see the imagination and enthusiasm sweeping across the energy sector, from integrated gasification and liquefied natural gas to new nuclear plants and burgeoning renewable energy markets. Who knows…maybe there’s a host of untapped TV programming in our industry. Imagination can move mountains.

While You Were Out – Plant personnel perform a complete fuel conversion while plant management attends an industry conference.

Trading Spaces – Power plants are paired up according to fuel type and number of personnel. Operator crews then switch places to see which can operate the other plant most efficiently.

Fear Factor – Contestants overcome their fear of heights by bungee jumping from power plant stacks in the midst of an opacity excursion.

OK, perhaps not that much imagination.

Brian K. Schimmoller,
Managing Editor