Just a few short years ago, the utility industry was struggling to muster support for the global energy transition needed to confront the climate crisis while meeting ever-escalating demand.

But on October 19th and 20th in New York City, an unprecedented assemblage of more than 200 innovation-minded leaders came together with palpable resolve to bring about that difficult but essential transition.

In fact, the inaugural NextGrid Alliance Summit marked historic progress: A critical mass of champions from across the entire energy innovation ecosystem — including trailblazing entrepreneurs, senior-level utility executives, technology-sector luminaries, venture investors, and public-sector leaders.

The NGA brought those cross-ecosystem players together to catalyze business relationships, shared learnings, and the inspiration that comes from a community of common interest. And this, as NGA Summit Master of Ceremonies Swati Dasgupta declared, was only the beginning.

Learning to “Speak Utility”

One of the main themes of the Summit was the need for utilities and innovators to better understand each other’s missions, priorities, and decision drivers. It’s especially important for startups to understand utilities, and not just because that’s who they’re trying to sell to.

With the responsibility to deliver energy to tens of millions of people across enormous networks of pipe and wire, utility companies are uniquely positioned to decarbonize the planet. But they’re also radically different from companies in other vertical markets when it comes to capital allocation, risk tolerance, planning time-horizons, regulatory constraints, and overall corporate culture.

Utilities, in short, have never been incentivized to be innovative – their mission has been safety, reliability and affordability. To unlock the potential disruption of applying new technologies at scale, startups must “learn to speak utility,” as National Grid Board Director Jonathan Silver put it onstage during the Summit.

National Grid Partners also laid out a roadmap for practical success, unveiling 24 active proofs-of-concept underway between its parent utility and the innovators in its investment portfolio.

One Puzzle, Many Pieces

The NGA Summit offered attendees “lightning round” sessions where they could hear startup CEOs present concise pitches of their value propositions to the energy industry.

A few minutes onstage might sound superficial, but it was actually highly efficient and impactful — giving attendees the opportunity to see who was whom among the startups. Those quick introductions made it much easier for utility executives to connect later with the innovators of greatest interest to them — whether they did so at the formal one-on-one sessions during the event, on an impromptu basis during meals or networking receptions, or by following up after the event was complete.

“The NGA really opens up the industry in a unique way,” said James Dean, CEO of new National Grid Partners portfolio company Sensat. “It’s a thesis around, ‘Where can we as utilities do better?’ These companies all have the same challenges, and the Alliance gives them an opportunity to work together. There’s no other forum for them to do this.”

The cumulative impact of the pitch sessions made clear that there are plenty of energy-transition challenges to address, from digitalizing and bolstering legacy systems to refining and deploying new decarbonization technologies. But there are also plenty of innovators actively addressing those challenges.

Methods to the Madness

Another key takeaway from the Summit is that there are many concrete steps utilities and their partners can take to accelerate purpose-driven innovation.

Jake Knapp, author of the NYT bestseller Sprint and former design partner at Google Ventures, shared methods for facilitating innovation during a fireside chat with NGP’s Brian Ryan. Jamie Siminoff, the founder, CEO, and Chief Inventor of Ring, also had a lot to say about innovation—and about maintaining a culture of innovation at scale.

Attendees also discussed the threats that can stifle innovation. One panel focused on the role of regulatory policy on the ability of utilities to act more quickly on their energy transition strategies.

That panel – which included leaders from federal and state agencies, National Grid New York President Rudy Wynter, and Hudson Gilmer, CEO of our portfolio company LineVision – gifted Summit attendees with rich insight into the do’s and don’ts of working with regulatory agencies. Those guidelines are key to successfully advocating for the policy changes needed to enable the energy transition.

Attendees also got to hear Silver, who notably served as a senior energy policy official in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, weigh in on the topic during his “fireside chat” with former National Grid Chris Kelly and NGP President Lisa Lambert.

Lesson Learned – And What’s Next

Other highlights from this historical, high-energy happening included:

  • John Pettigrew, CEO of National Grid, declaring that the entire energy industry must become more ambitious “if we are to attract the massive volume of new talent we need to achieve a clean, fair, and affordable energy transition.”
  • X’s Audrey Zibelman and Amazon’s Rolf Gibbels providing an inside look at the roles their respective tech-sector giants plan on playing in the energy transition.
  • National Grid Chair Paula Rosput Reynolds chairing a revealing discussion on the challenges renewables pose for utilities — and the new technologies that could help solve those challenges.
  • Experts sharing perspectives on cybersecurity risks and the crucial role data standards will play in helping utilities better integrate and orchestrate their exploding portfolios of digital assets.

But perhaps the most important lesson learned from NGA Summit 2022 is that no one should miss NGA Summit 2023, slated for next October in New York.

“Decarbonization is a worldwide challenge,” said Adam Richins, chief operating officer of Idaho Power, who co-chairs the NGA’s Transmission Working Group. “The problem is that the industry is behind in transforming the grid. Working together will lead to more progress toward a clean-energy future.”

So if you’re a senior utility executive and weren’t part of industry history this year, take action now to make sure you’re invited to next year’s event.