DISTRIBUTECH: Alan Ross Interviews Brad Bowness, Chief Information Officer at Systems With Intelligence

Watch the interview here: https://www.powersystems.technology/events-pst/event-interviews-pst/distributech-pst/interview-with-brad-bowness-chief-information-officer-systems-with-intelligence-inc.html

Note: This is a transcript of an interview with Brad Bowness, CIO of Systems With Intelligence. The interview took place at DISTRIBUTECH  2024. The interview was produced and recorded to be watched live on video or listened to via audio. If you are able to, we strongly recommend listening to/watching this episode which will include emotion and emphasis that isn’t obvious when reading a transcript. Our transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and humans. They may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.  

Interviewer: Alan Ross 

Interviewee: Brad Bowness

My next guest is Brad Bowness, Chief Information Officer


Okay, CIO, that means you know everything about, everything that there is to know about, right? 


Yes, I get to see the world from many lenses, right?


Tell me a little bit about your career, your background. I know you're relatively new with SWI, but tell me a little bit about how you got here.


Yeah, so I'm 25 years in the industry. No,


you look like Dick Clark. You look too young


I graduated as a business grad back in the late 90s from from Ivy business school in Ontario, Canada. Okay, and so I joined the consulting world. 

And when you join a consulting world, you don't necessarily have a choice on, you know, where you get assigned, and what market units you you get to join. And I got assigned to the utility sector. So I sort of fell into the utility sector, not by plan, but a little bit by happenstance. 

I worked for Accenture, or Anderson Consulting at the time, which became Accenture, and had the opportunity to work in Ontario, in Texas, in Vancouver, in Montreal, had a great run in in consulting, and got to the point in 2004 I guess it was, and I was approached by one of our clients. 

I had gone independent at that time, Hydro One, and they asked if I was interested in coming on board. So moving from consulting to being internal utility to a utility, I was like, How did I end up in the utility space? 

But I had loved my time in utilities and energy, and it was working at a variety of companies working through deregulation. 

I worked down in Texas with ERCOT, worked in on the Ontario deregulation marketplace, and I really saw an industry that that had a lot of disruption, a lot of change, a lot of need for improvement. And I thought, Wow, what a great opportunity for me to join a customer, join a client, see things from another perspective. 

 Or I thought I'd stick around for two or three years and then then go off to the next adventure. And what was exciting about my time with Hydro One is, every two or three years, I got a new opportunity. 

I grew up in the technology organization. We did a major SAP implementations, GIS, mobility, data and analytics, moved up through the director ranks and got to that positions of leadership. 

And then I took a big tangent. I moved over to core operations. I took the business grad who was the IT guy, and I moved in to run the capital projects, project management group, so accountable for the billion dollar Capital Work Program, doing major transmission investments to improve the power grid to meet the demands of Ontario, and that eventually expanded to take on the construction field workforces, the transmission station maintenance folks and I was the VP of transmission, once again, got a tangential opportunity to move over to distribution. 

Moved in as the VP of distribution dealt with storm response trouble. Response came down and supported hurricane Irma down in Florida with our mutual aid response. Did that for a few years, and then I was approached to see if I wanted to be the CIO .

So using my technology routes my business experience, and I spent the last five years as the CIO at Hydro One, and just less than a year ago, I decided that the next adventure for me was something a little bit more entrepreneurial. Try to flex those, those different muscles. And I just recently joined systems with intelligence as the CIO.


I love your point is fascinating, all the different changes. Here's the interesting thing, a lot of that time for your career was really pretty static. It was exciting to you, but it was really pretty static. We've had 100 year run of not much happening in the utility industry, and the last five years have been dynamic change, right? 

So talk a little bit about your experience of what you've seen. Where are we now? Don't go into the future, because I want to talk about that. But where are we now? We've seen more dynamic change in the five than the previous 100, even though we've had change, but it kind of didn't. It didn't include what's going on right now. So talk about, what are the decentralization, decarbonization, digitalization, AI, ML, freak weather events, etc, etc.


It's a tsunami of change. Comes back at the at the energy sector, the utility sector, you know, the energy transition is a massive undertaking to decarbonize the globe. 

From a utility perspective, having, you know, worked within an executive team and dealt with the challenges that we were seeing, I look at it from a few perspectives. You look at it from a customer perspective. First, the what they're being inundated with, with changing their behaviors, changing the way they're consuming and producing electricity, the onslaught of EVs and solar and distributed energy resources. 

When the consumer wants a simplified experience from their utility, but they also want the dynamic experience that they've had in the retail space, where. With the major technology changes that have faced them on their personal side. So it's a dynamic that the consumer is changing, the customer's changing, and that's driving a significant change in customer expectations. 

You then have the utility that's trying to balance customer expectations with a completely changing landscape. So distributed energy resources, smart grid, new resources coming online, new players in the marketplace, technology vendors, coming to bear, a tsunami of change that's coming at the utility from what's possible, then you have the energy transition, and we all know that the energy transition, especially from a transmission distribution perspective, is going to have a huge impact. 

We need to we need to build transmission. We need to have more robust distribution grids. So you need to build a significant uplift in your in your grid, right? Add to that expectations around reliability, add to that expectations around data and information, and then you add in all these different technologies, right, mobile technology, geospatial technologies, machine learning, AI, generative. Ai, meanwhile, people that work at utilities, they're trying to keep the lights on. 

So you're trying to be a 24/7 operator, and you have this tsunami of change around you, and it's a really intriguing world to be in right now.


There's a mention. You said, keep the lights on. That's kind of been the whole reliability thing. Hey, keep the lights on now. It's, oh, get them back on when we have some sort of an event that takes the life. 

So resilience is now another one of those buzzwords that they're all trying to deal with. So when you you're you come at things from a CIO perspective, but you've had enough operational background to be dangerous to know what they're all dealing with, because it is exactly what you said. There's, I use the word chaos, and I mean that positively. There's chaos in the distribution end that used to be pretty static. There's chaos in the generation end that used to be pretty static, which creates chaos in the transmission part of the thing. And I think that's what everybody's dealing with. We're saying this is very different at the distribution end, because some of the rate payers are now not consumers, they're prosumers, and you've got, as you said, Great, different expectations. The same is true at the generation. You know, distributed energy resources is no longer, Oh, it's coming, it's here, it's cost effective. 

Now maybe it was policy that got it there, but today it's cost effective. It's not just about, oh, let's make it a nice, greener planet. It's very effective from a financial standpoint. 

Who has to put all that together? Who do we look at to do it? The poor utility. So talk a little bit about how they're managing that change.


So the utility core fabric is about safe, reliable, affordable power for consumers, I don't like the word rate payers anymore, consumers, customers, right? And you have a culture and a rigor of really smart people, smart engineers, SMART operators, smart maintenance practitioners, customer service agents, supply chain. Find there is a wealth of knowledge within the utility, but the core fabric is rigor. 

It's protection, it's risk aversion, it's reliability. It's, it's great management, structure, process, some might say, bureaucracy, but it's there for a reason, because the grid is complex to manage. It needs to be protected. Things need to be done, right? You can't just go off and deploy a technology and see if it works. 

You need to prove a concept. You need to pilot it. You need to roll it out. You need to make sure it's cyber secure. You need to make sure it's going to integrate, well, with the legacy environment, the new environment. 

That leads people to think it's slow and it's old school. No, it's rigorous, it's diligent. It's focused on having a really strong, reliable grid in the goal of having safe, reliable and affordable power for consumers, this onslaught of new technology we're at this great conference is bringing lots of thought leadership, lots of new things to the table, and the chaos right now internal to a utility is, how do you embrace that new technology? Don't lose the core of being really diligent and rigorous with great engineering principles to have a really reliable grid, but be innovative and change the grid and deal with the chaos that's coming at you.


I mean, because nobody has put it in that perspective, because I've heard people, yeah, you know, the utility industry very slow to change, right? No, the requirements were rigor. 

That was the requirement. That's what we asked them to do. And then we introduced a whole bunch of new asks of them, oh, by the way, you've got to be green. Oh, by the way, you've got to oh, by the way. 

And we kept doing that to them. I just think of smart homes right now. You have DER. It's an inverter based system creates harmonics and transients. So adopt this and, oh, by the way, I can't take all of those harmonics and transmits because my smart meters don't work anymore. It is they're getting it from both ends. So that's a great perspective. Talk about how utilities are handling it from both ends to say, yes, thank you. We're going to move fast, but we're not going to move so fast that we lose rigor. 


And most utilities, you know, the utility I came from, we had, we had focused people working on grid of the future, right? Whether it was, you know, the coin smart grid over the last 10 years, or it's really just modernizing the grid, the digital grid, you know, dealing with the bidirectional power flows, dealing with the onslaught of distributed energy resources, pulling in new technologies and capabilities. 

So the way I interact with most of my peers at my former utility and with other utility customers that I interact with is they're standing up divisions and departments to deal with the grid of the future. It's really difficult to deal with the now and the future. The people that are dealing with the now are consumed with the now. It's a 24/7 operation. You're dealing with asset investment plans. You're dealing with maintenance strategies. You're dealing with real time operations. You're dealing with storms and trouble and response. You can't just flip gears and say, Oh, from four to 6pm I'm going to deal with the grid of the future. 

So I think it's really important, yeah, and then they have to go back from six till nine to finish off their operational duties. But standing groups, pulling them aside, starting to build a different way of thinking, a different way of operating, and then incubate ideas, but then flow those back into the core, and bring them back with the rigor, into the core where the concept has been proven. You have the rigor, and you bring it back into the core. Now becomes part of the core. 

So incubate the ideas over here with Thought Leadership, get things to a certain point, and then pull them back into the core and slowly transform the utility. Right? It's not a revolution, it's an evolution, but it's done methodically, because that's the culture of the industry.


One of our recent issues was “it's not a revolution, it's an evolution”. Because it because we don't want a revolution, we want to evolve. There talk about now, what do you see here, going forward? You mentioned a lot of that, of what we but look outside the current and what do you think the next decade is going to bring in terms of this grid transition.


Yeah, so there's a lot of the hype cycle around AI, machine learning generative AI,


I was hoping you'd say that.


I think it's something we need to pay attention to. I don't think it's going to hit the core of the utility T and D generation business as fast as it hits retail and consumer and media and entertainment and all the different social media channels that my children spend tons of time on, and I scratch my head at, but if you look at what's going to happen in our sector, we are going to be adopters. We are going to be benefactors of that technology, the lessons that are going to be learned in those other industries are going to be applicable. I think the first place going to be applicable are in the non core asset size of the utility. 

How do you optimize your finance operation, your supply chain operation, your customer service, your chat bots, your user experience, your enrollment processes, your billing processes, how you're interacting with the external marketplace, vendor management, all of those pieces I think, are ripe for early adoption of the technologies. When it gets to the core part of the asset intensive side of the business, I do think we're going to be a bit slow because we're going to be methodical and and we're going to try things. We're going to work with our partners. We're going to work what I think is amazing about this industry. We're going to work with our peers. This industry is famous for being collaborative. Like many other industries, would consider a lot of things that are shared between utilities be trade secrets. No, we share, we collaborate. And what's great is the partner model and the partner ecosystem also shares and collaborates. It's going to be complex. We're going to do this together. We're going to be methodical. We're going to apply things. We're going to do proof of concepts. We're going to learn, we're going to learn from others, and we're going to slowly transition to this, this new energy future. 


Some of the you mentioned the collaborative part of that, every one of the major you know, companies that are major asset suppliers. I won't mention any names, but every one of them has mentioned their client conferences and how collaborative they are, that they learn. 

But they're not all clients of one. They're usually clients of multiples, right? You've got a lot of different you'll see a lot of different name tags from different vendors out there, but the industry probably collaborates more than people think they do, and is willing to collaborate even more. You mentioned this as my last one, because SWI Systems With Intelligence, you are one of those partners. You bring something to the marketplace. All right, it's a commercial time. What is it? Systems with intelligence. How have they convinced you to drink the Kool Aid, and what is it that you as a partner, bring to the marketplace?


So what I'm really excited about with Systems With Intelligence is the core offering is something that I think utilities can grasp. 

What we do is we do thermal imagery, we do visual monitoring so that we can help with substation operations, automation, remote management, remote views effectively of what's happening in the substation. 

So whether it's monitoring a transformer, heat signatures, whether it's monitoring bushings, connection points, battery rooms, vaults, underground devices, closed cabinets that can't be seen in an energized state from a maintainer, we install our devices, our cameras and our sensors in order to bring additional data and information to the utility experts to make better decisions. 

What I really like about it is that it's not this machine learning AI digital twin, easy button. It's something that, hey, I do this this way today, I can now augment what I can do with something that I can feel, I can see, I can touch, and I can see how that can immediately add value to how I do my work today. 

Yeah, you then look to say, Okay, well now if you get comfortable with digital information, remote monitoring, heat signatures, visualizations to do your job. Well, now, how can you then apply some of the principles of machine learning and AI to augment that, to bring an additional new perspective of what that data might be saying? 

Right now, I don't think it's just our data and our sensors. You need to also look at the performance data, the operational data, the maintenance history, the data that you have about the asset and the history of that asset, and the vendor data, and the all the information that's in a variety of data sources within utility if you can then bring that together and then apply technology machine learning, AI, generative, AI, I think that's where it's going to get exciting on doing business quite differently within a utility. 

But what I like right now is we're a step into the digital world. We're something that utilities can understand. A maintenance engineer can understand what we're doing and understand how it improves their job.


If you can. There's a I appreciate that, because from my perspective, we ask people to do things differently more often than we ask them to do things the same, but better. 

We give you better tools to do that. Oh, do it differently, and everybody's going to time out. My robustness, thing that you talk about, the rigor in there, doesn't allow me to do things differently. And if I move it up the food chain, typically the next guy says, So why want to change that again? Give me a reason to do this. 

One of the things about heat signatures. I just I monitored a conference. I was the moderator of a conference on physical security of utility substations last two weeks ago, at a tech con conference, I was totally shocked at what I found out about how dangerous how many more people, particularly in the United States. It might be true in Canada, but are shooting at substations physical security, right? 

And how do you make a substation? You put in a valley, because that's a great place to put it. You didn't want to put it on a mountain, but there's all mountains around it that people can get up and shoot right. They can do that. And one of the things I heard was we have to be better at physical security. We have to be better at heat signatures. And I thought about, what do you mean by heat signatures? So is it potentially Systems With Intelligence turning it from the asset out to say there's a rogue person out on the hill that we've got to stop from shooting us, and get that information to the police department, security, whatever it is. 


So we have offerings around security monitoring, okay, the rigor and the robustness of what we have is we have sensors and cameras and thermal sensors that work in the substation electrified environment, so they're hardened to not have any EMI interference. 

And as such, if you look at what a utility would normally deploy from a physical security perspective, it's not as robust a camera or a sensor that's out at the station gate or monitoring the fence line, or monitoring from a radar perspective beyond the fence line. 

So there's different solutions that are in the marketplace. What I'm interested in having had accountability for physical and cybersecurity in my form of utility, is there an opportunity for a shared investment? 

So instead of having the security cameras that are monitoring the fences and the gates and the such, and having different sensors and cameras that are monitoring the assets. Could you make one investment and have one user experience and be able to have overall situational awareness, both at the assets as well as from a security perspective? 

So looking at things as a better way and a more cost effective way of deploying a solution that's servicing multi purposes? That being said, your question about the shootings that we've seen in the US at transformers and at devices. 

There's, there's only so much you can do right to protect the power system. There's, there's 1000s of substations, there's millions of lines of circuit, kilometers of transmission and distribution. So that's so it's targeting the right places and then putting in the right hardened solutions. 

There's radar systems, there's ballistic walls, there's different ways to architect solving a physical problem, but it should always be risk based and threat based. You can't deploy that type of protection across the entire grid. You need to target those investments and make the right, prudent investments to protect the assets that should be protected.


That's an excellent way of saying it. Brad, thank you so much. It's been a delight. Great. Thank you. And that is an excellent way of saying it, because you.

Watch the interview here: https://www.powersystems.technology/events-pst/event-interviews-pst/distributech-pst/interview-with-brad-bowness-chief-information-officer-systems-with-intelligence-inc.html