Looking to the future
What will Cullman EC look like when it celebrates 100 years in 2036?
In 2006, the iPhone was still a project being developed at Apple. Facebook and Twitter were social media infants, and Instagram wasn’t born. The world’s current largest taxi company (Uber) and largest vacation hotel chain (Airbnb) did not exist.
A lot can happen in 15 years. It’s impossible to predict the future in a rapidly evolving world, but we asked Cullman EC employees to share their thoughts on what things look like in 2036 when the co-op celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Based on trends since 2000, it is safe to believe by 2036 Cullman EC will have more than 50,000 meters and a peak load that exceeds 350 megawatts. Senior systems engineer Justin Lee says those numbers — indicating a need to provide more electricity to a growing number of people, businesses and industrial consumers — are the driving force behind the current long-term planning for projects and capital investments.
“This includes new substations all across the system, the retirement of our older 46kV system and the stations this voltage serves,” said Lee. “New powerlines will be built and expansions will be needed system wide. This also means developing our workforce, hiring new people, training them, and retaining them long term.”
Cullman EC chief financial officer Jerry Weathersby recalled a meeting several years ago when he was told the utility industry would change more in the next decade that it had in the past 100 years. Those technological advances are indeed happening, and Cullman Electric will need to be nimble and ready to adapt to whatever comes next.
“The bulk of electric generation capacity will continue to come from nuclear, hydro, natural gas and coal in the foreseeable future,” said Weathersby. “But this could change seemingly overnight. With the rapid advances in solar and wind generation in areas where the sun shines and the wind blows coupled with the continued improvement in battery storage, Cullman EC may find itself competing with such things as microgrids, and individual households and businesses providing electricity for their own use.”
Blake Bright, superintendent of field services at Cullman EC, says advances in automation software will allow the co-op to collect and utilize massive amounts of data and algorithms which members can use for their benefit.
“With the arrival of the modern smart home, our members will have the ability to take their real-time energy usages via their smart meters,” Bright said. “They will be able to make smarter and more strategic choices as to how and when they plan their use electricity.”
Many of these changes are being driven by consumer demand. Cullman EC communications manager Brian Lacy says online payments and outage reporting are already standard practices for many members, and options for web-based services will continue to grow.
“The line between member service activities and communications activities inside the co-op is disappearing, because our members are pushing us in that direction,” Lacy said. “Each day, more members are looking for ways to do business with Cullman Electric using the internet. I believe within the next year or two, members will be able to use our website to complete any business transaction with the co-op.”
Another technology impact will be the continued growth of Sprout Fiber Internet and the fiber-optic connectivity within Cullman EC’s electric grid.
“We will go from a cooperate that operates on phone calls and service tickets to a utility that works off of data analysis, predictive technology, and real-time data transfer of problems,” Lee said. “There will still be poles and wire but how we interact with those poles and wire will change dramatically.”
As the electric utility industry evolves and consumer expectations change, Cullman EC will need to rethink what it takes to provide outstanding service to its members.
“For Cullman Electric Cooperative to remain relevant as an electric service provider, it must embrace change,” Weathersby said. “It must be ready for the inevitable quantum leap in electric generation that will come at some time, for example, the proverbial ‘little black box’ that sits in the closet and runs the whole house, or controlling nuclear fusion, or something else.”
While the forecast for yet-to-be-discovered technology is hazy, there is a clear picture of what is currently available. Electric vehicles, renewable energy, battery storage and smart-home technology are quickly gaining mainstream acceptance and becoming more affordable.
“Our Cooperative Connections subsidiary will be the centerpiece of our future,” said Lee. “I can envision the revenue from Sprout Fiber allowing us to sell new technology to our members at a competitive price and also be the servicing entity for these technologies. This could be a good way of putting the investment our members make into fiber right back in their hands for their benefit.”
No matter what lies ahead, the key to navigating the future successfully can be found in the seven cooperative principles on which the Cullman EC was founded.
“The co-op has always been about serving members,” Lacy said. “Over the past 85 years, the employees have changed, our members have changed, technology has changed, and the demand for electricity has changed. But the mission has stayed the same. As long as Cullman Electric stays focused on serving its members and improving the quality of life in the communities we serve, the future — whatever it looks like — will be bright.”