The North Carolina State Energy Conference was held a month ago, April 17-18.  A good crowd. Some 800+ people, which says good things about energy in North Carolina. The event had a pretty broad representation of energy, from generation sources to customer technology to conservation. After reflection, a couple themes stood out to me.

Customers have moved from the fringe to the center. One speaker used just about those words when discussing the edge of the grid. The days are numbered that residential or small business customers have a one-size-fits-all option for buying electricity. Technologies from vehicle charging, home energy storage and small solar will make the choices more plentiful.

Here’s a good perspective: “For consumers, the roll-out of grid-edge technologies will enable customers to take the center stage of the electricity system. Under the right price signals and market design, customers will be able to produce their own electricity, store it and then consume it at a cheaper time or sell it back to the grid,” according to a report, The Future of Electricity: New Technologies Transforming the Grid Edge from the World Economic Forum.

Entrepreneurs make the electric industry more lively. I was pleased to see a healthy combination of old and new names at the event. Here’s one reason that is important: “Policymakers often think of small business as the employment engine of the economy. But when it comes to job-creating power, it is not the size of the business that matters as much as it is the age. New and young companies are the primary source of job creation in the American economy. Not only that, but these firms also contribute to economic dynamism by injecting competition into markets and spurring innovation. Representing 95 percent of all U.S. companies, businesses with fewer than fifty employees are undoubtedly important to overall economic strength.” The Importance of Young Firms for Economic Growth, Kaufman Foundation. 2015.

Energy and a healthier economy? Maybe the prevalence of new business names is a litmus test for future innovation, and jobs, in the electric industry. It is about people putting their heads and hearts on the line, not a federal or state government, starting these businesses.

All kilowatts are not created equal. It is about more than one kind of energy. Really happy to see this. My sense is that more people were talking about the spectrum of energy resources, from renewables to nuclear to energy management. One of the eye-opening sessions to me looked at energy efficiency in the manufacturing sector, and with manufacturing using one-third of the energy in the U.S., that can really make a difference. Another interesting session talked about biomass research and wave energy available under the surface of the ocean. Those are different topics. Approaching an energy portfolio like an investment portfolio makes sense. Diversity is a good way to reduce risk.

Collaboration counts. There were several terrific examples of collaboration at the event. A speaker from Home Depot described how the company answered the call to stop using old growth wood by working with the groups who protested its use. Great story. Or, this: The ocean wave energy scientist said he recognizes the value of knowledge from oil and gas companies because they have worked in ocean environments. He sees something to share and learn where some see only conflict.

Silos and turf build walls that impede a powerful balance of competition and collaboration. Even with good work done already there is room for more genuine listening and learning. There will always be market niches for people who pay attention to customers, practice real innovation and work respectfully with others. For customers, it means that we have a responsibility to know more about our energy choices.