I’ve spent the better part of four decades working in the utility space and seen more changes and evolution than you would care to read about. But this moment in time is different. Never in our history has there been so many conflicting forces upending the utility market. The undeniable impacts of climate change and move to renewables, the electrification of transportation, growing security threats, changing customer expectations, a pandemic and a recession…just to name a few. But I am lucky enough to spend my days helping some of the most progressive utilities employ technology to meet these challenges head on for the betterment of their business, customers and our planet. Mike Menendez, VP of IT at Exelon, is one of these customers. We recently sat down for a wide-ranging conversation on the cloud, carbon reduction and cajoling talent to help usher in this new era in energy.
Smith: Exelon is considered a leader when it comes to environmental sustainability. What are Exelon’s main sustainability goals?
Menendez: Climate change is the number one challenge we’re facing, and Exelon has been aggressive in combating this challenge. We've committed to electrifying 50% of our fleet by 2030 and reducing operations-driven emissions by at least 50% in that same timeframe, and we plan to drive to net-zero-operations-driven emissions for all six of our utilities by 2050. We call this our Path to Clean.
Smith: How are you using technology to reach those goals?
Menendez: We have a couple of major initiatives underway. First, we’re actively consolidating all our on-premises data centers. In addition, we’re aggressively moving workloads to the cloud. In our data centers, we’re following best practices around air cooling, automation, etc. So, consolidating data centers into a smaller footprint that follows these best practices will go a long way to help us achieve our sustainability goals. In the cloud, we take advantage of our cloud providers’ economies of scale and the best practices that they've all implemented as well.
Smith: Exelon recently migrated several of its Oracle Energy and Water applications to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure [OCI]. What were the main goals of this project?
Menendez: Our cloud business case is centered on enhanced disaster recovery and security protections, increased reliability and performance and faster time to market. The last several years during the pandemic, the supply chain has been a significant challenge, so getting our hands on the equipment that we need has been quite difficult. Running in the cloud helps mitigate that supply chain risk. And, of course, there are the new features we’re getting through automatic software updates.
Smith: How will the move to OCI help Exelon advance its sustainability efforts?
Menendez: Sustainability is another key driver for our cloud business case, so shifting to OCI is allowing us to take advantage of the best practices that Oracle has implemented around data center management. For example, Oracle has implemented several best practices including high utilization and state of the art energy efficiency solutions. We get to take advantage of those by shifting workloads into the cloud. And of course, because of the number of customers that Oracle has in their cloud, we get to tap into greater economies of scale.
Smith: One of the applications that you’re migrating is meter data management, which is massively data intensive. How is Exelon taking advantage of smart meter data to develop new programs?
Menendez: The meter data management platform is capturing all usage data from all of our meters. We have 10 million customers, so we are capturing several petabytes of data. That data is being used for a number of different purposes. We use it to bill our customers, but we also use it to offer our customers new programs like time-of-use rates. The other thing it allows us to do is enable new insights for customers. We show them data about how they're using energy and give them tips and tricks to improve their energy efficiency. The potential with the data we're collecting is incredible and shifting that to cloud gives us greater resiliency, greater scalability and improved continuity.
Smith: How is Exelon using or planning for technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning?
Menendez: We have several investments underway. We made a significant investment in a data analytics platform and we’re continuing to improve that platform. This platform ingests data from a number of different sources and then we’ve built analytics capabilities on top of it. Those analytics capabilities are exposed to our employees, who use them to identify internal efficiencies and they’re also exposed directly to our customers, who receive great insights on their energy usage. We started our AI and ML journey many years ago with our digital customer offerings. From early on we started thinking about the customer first and now we're starting to think about how we can deliver similar capabilities for our employees.
Smith: Beyond sustainability, what is the biggest IT challenge facing Exelon and other utilities?
Menendez: I would say hands down, the number one challenge is talent. We're focused on our talent acquisition and talent retention strategies and you need to do both really well to be effective in this market. We’re addressing multiple dimensions such as compensation and hiring and we’re introducing new talent development techniques like talent academies, where we train people all over the organization, not just in IT. We need to retain the great people that we have today, but also make Exelon an exciting place to work so that we attract top talent.
Smith: What is the long-term cloud vision for Exelon, and how far along are you in the journey?
Menendez: The cloud is a critical part of our sustainability efforts. We’ve been aggressively moving applications to the cloud for a number of years, so this isn’t new for us. In fact, many of our most critical workloads are either in the cloud today or on a path to get there. We started this journey with a cloud-first approach, but that's evolved into a cloud-smart approach. What we've learned along the way is while cloud is a critical technology solution for us, it’s not the only solution and not all workloads make sense in the cloud. That’s been a big focus for us, moving applications and workloads to the appropriate place, to the appropriate cloud, or even leaving them on-premises. Our focus has really shifted to running our cloud operation like a business. We are focused on tackling important aspects like talent, workload placement strategies and cost containment. How do we decide to send something to Cloud A versus Cloud B or to keep it on-premises? It all ratchets up to that concept of running cloud like a business. It can't just be throwing everything into the cloud.
Smith: Are there operational changes you’re making that will move the cloud forward more quickly?
Menendez: We are working hard to take our corporate IT teams and turn them into business-aligned IT teams. It’s a great opportunity for us to ensure our talented people can advance our business strategy through technology in a way that they've never been able to do before. In traditional IT, you find IT acts as an order-taker. The technology team may have a better or more efficient way to solve a problem, but because they’re brought in at the tail end, it’s far more challenging to try to introduce new ideas and steer the business in a direction that's going to create a more powerful outcome for our customers. Our employees want to make a big impact and I think moving our IT professionals closer to the business is going to allow them to do that. And that, in turn, is going to make them happier.