Neighborhoods to Nuclear: Four Concertos from ETS@chicago

Neighborhoods to Nuclear: Four Concertos from ETS@chicago

Last week, people descended upon the Chicago Symphony Orchestra along Michigan Avenue to listen to a new kind of symphony: ETS@chicago. Zpryme’s event discussed energy infrastructure in the Midwest, and the complex interactions and relationships that must develop for a more advanced, harmonious grid. This article explores key themes that rose to the top of the event’s conversations—from neighborhood-scale energy to nuclear.

Concerto 1: Changing investments…for better or for worse.

In a recent New York Times piece that drew upon insights of ETS@chicago speakers, Eduardo Porter reviewed the scattershot investments being made in energy. Certainly we’re not seeing funding levels on the scale of Smart Grid Investment Grants, but at ETS@chicago it became clear that the government is changing its investment strategies for next-gen grid technologies. Jennifer Gustetic, Assistant Director, Open Innovation, White House, as well as Michael Contreras, a fellow for the SunShot Catalyst program at the U. S. Department of Energy, both spoke about the federal government’s changing approach with competition-based funding for new energy technologies. These investments are done on a smaller scale to help companies rapidly innovate, and efficiently grow the most promising technologies.

We also heard about businesses like Direct Energy and ComEd stepping up private funding to help startups to scale up their technologies, and organizations like Energy Foundry that help cultivate startups and connect them with funding to keep them in the Midwest. Of course there can always be more funding, but the conversation at ETS@chicago didn’t seem to be as much about the lack of funding as it was the right way to supply funding—and folks are still figuring out the best way to do it.

Concerto 2: Okay, really, where are the customers?

Consumer engagement, or the lack of it, still dominates many energy discussions. This isn’t entirely surprising, as noted by Anne Pramaggiore, President and Chief Executive Officer, ComEd. “We’ve trained customers for 125 years to not care about energy,” she said. Customers don’t seem to notice much about energy, but they are crucial for developing distributed energy technologies that will touch them more closely than ever. Jennifer Garson, Tech to Market Analyst, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, discussed how thousands of patents are sitting out there unused, and for true innovation, researchers need to be paying closer attention to customer needs.

Folks also discussed the scale at which we should focus on the electric grid. Some argued that we typically focus the utility’s service territory or the individual consumer, but focusing on the middle ground—such as at the neighborhoowird level—can bring about technologies like community solar that enable consumers to take meaningful action at the right scale.

Concerto 3: Incredible integration across technologies, organizations and people.

Interoperability is crucial for a highly integrated and resilient electric grid: How do we take all of these technologies and get them to work together on an enormous scale? However, it isn’t just about technology interoperability. Interoperability among people and organizations are critical discussions as well—although John Rowe, Chairman Emeritus, Exelon Corporation, wasn’t sure his wife would appreciate the term interpersonal interoperability. What groups need to come together in a region to promote energy innovation? How do we bring together the right regulatory and political frameworks to advance the electrical grid? The ETS@chicago discussions in these areas brought up many questions and very few answers at this point.

We also saw discussion around the incredible integration happening across different infrastructures—from transportation to water to, more broadly, smart cities. Whether mobility and electricity or the energy-water nexus, we need to continue to dig deeper to look at the integration of infrastructure, and this is something Zpryme will dive into more deeply in the coming weeks.

Concerto 4: Nuclear? Nuclear!

Even with Zpryme’s “traditional” focus on distributed generation, no generation topic is ever off-limits and nuclear definitely worked its way into ETS@chicago with the Midwest’s strong nuclear base and a lot of talk about carbon emissions. No doubt nuclear plays a significant role today, but conference participants weren’t sure of its future. “I never met a nuclear plant I didn’t like,” said John Rowe, “but I would never advise you to build a new one.” An EnergyWire interview with Rowe at the event also highlighted why nuclear plants are having trouble competing today.

Whether nuclear or neighborhood solar, no single generation source or technology will likely dominate the future grid, and the focus instead will be on developing a sustainable, resilient grid that uses a variety of technologies as highlighted in an Midwest Energy News article about the event. Sorting out how to make that grid happen is kind of messy at the moment, but the messiness is where things get interesting. “All of the good things in my career came from getting involved in a mess,” noted Rowe.

Those are just some initial findings from the event. We will be continuing the conversation from ETS@chicago through videos, write ups and reports that we’ll release in the coming weeks—stay tuned.

  1. Christine Richards is the research director for Zpryme. You may reach her at

ETS@chicago is LIVE!
July 22-23, 2015 | Chicago Symphony Center