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Saturday, February 28, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 6.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Solar energy will end utilities if they don't think differently

Quick, what was Kodak's business?

If you said film, you're wrong, but that's what Kodak thought too. Kodak's researchers actually invented the digital camera. But because the company's executives misunderstood their own business, they ordered the invention deep-sixed because they saw it (correctly) as a threat to the film business. The rest is history.

Once mighty Kodak is all but gone, with only about 3,500 workers left out of a company that once employed around 60,000. If its execs had understood that they weren't selling film but the ability to capture images, they might be stronger than ever today.

There's a similar lesson in this for a lot of industries, nonprofits and governments today. One that comes to mind right now is the electric utility industry. The utilities generally hold the perspective that they are in the business of converting mostly fossil fuels into electricity and selling it to customers through their power grid.

But actually the future could be in something called distributed energy. These are things like solar panels on homes and businesses. Right now you are free to put up your own panels of course, but you're not free to set up your own business installing them on other people's property and then selling the power back to the utility. Even though that would be much better for the environment, utilities see that as a threat to their business model. If they view themselves, like Kodak, too narrowly, then it certainly is.

What utilities, including our own generally progressive local utility MG&E, need to be thinking about is how they can survive and prosper in an environment where electricity isn’t produced in big coal- or gas-fired power plants and then distributed, but rather produced in thousands of small installations that require a different type of distribution network.

Like digital cameras, you can't stop a good idea. You can figure out how to be part of it, or you can get run over.

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