This past September, I attended the 110th annual Rocky Mountain Electrical League (RMEL) Fall Executive Leadership and Management Convention in Arizona. The 2013 Fall Convention theme, “The Heat is On – Burning Issues Facing the Electric Utility Industry” had me looking forward to the opportunities to learn and participate in discussions of many topical issues this year.

Speakers at the convention are typically CEOs, senior executives, and other top leaders from inside the energy industry. I personally found the most value in the Electric Utility CEO Panel, which included five executives from Black Hills Corporation, Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), Platte River Power Authority, Tri-State Generation & Transmissions Association, and UNS Energy Corporation. Each panelist gave varying opinions on issues ranging from pending regulations, to economic uncertainty, to the increasing speed of communications. However, there were two important issues that came up repeatedly and provoked near- unanimous agreement.

The first is the concept of “reliability”. In the power market, reliability takes on many aspects; one of which is how it is described to the public/consumer vs. a financing resource? Another reliability issue relates to the changing power market: how to remain relevant as more sustainable options become widely used; options that people may not be as familiar with or trust. Add to that, the issue of the aging U.S. power infrastructure. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) has identified $140 billion worth of power projects requiring attention across the U.S. through 2020. With such a high rate of aging infrastructure and project urgency, reliability can become even more challenging.

Just as our infrastructure is aging, so too is the workforce within utilities. This second important issue triggered a good deal of discussion. As more industry professionals retire, there are not enough competent new candidates to take their place. Many universities have dropped “power engineering” as a specialty, and the executives noted that for those who do specialize, there is not the same sense of mentorship for recent graduates that there once was.

The CEO panel discussion helped me to recognize that the issues of reliability and an aging workforce will cause a shift in how consultants support the industry. Just as cable companies promote the idea of “bundling” personal services into one account, utilities may come to expect similar bundles with consultants. A multi-disciplined firm that can package many services together may deliver more value with the resulting time- and cost-savings to complete projects.  And, as the aging workforce within utilities equals a loss of technical expertise, consultants will be apt to fill these voids within the market.