Innovation Is Evolution

By Barry Moline, CMUA Executive Director

I was chatting recently with an old utility friend from Florida as he was trying to understand why California is so active in energy policy. As we bantered back and forth, he began to understand the state’s drive to address climate change. What he said at the end of the conversation, however, gave me pause and made me curious.

On the topic of electric vehicles, I told him, “This is happening. It’s big in California, and it’s growing nationwide.”

He replied, a bit skeptical, “Well, I won’t be planning any cross-country trips from Florida!”

That got me thinking: Can you drive from California to Florida in an electric vehicle?

The answer isn’t just yes, it’s hell yes.

Go to any electric charging station website, such as PlugShare, and you can see nearly every electric-charging station in the nation. I followed the interstate highway system from Sacramento, California, to Tallahassee, Florida, and sure enough, the longest distance between charging stations is about 75 miles— in the desolate moonscape of West Texas.

All this infrastructure has grown organically as the EV market gradually expanded just about everywhere. It occurred, essentially, while most weren’t looking.

That’s the nature of innovation. It’s not about an “Aha!” moment where suddenly everything changes. It’s more of, “Wow, look what’s happening here!”

Many people focus on the newness of innovation, placing too much emphasis on developing widgets we have not seen before. Rather, innovation is the result of persistence, finding new combinations to solve old problems or using a solution from another industry applied in a different way.

When Thomas Edison created a working lightbulb, it’s reported he failed 10,000 times before finding the right solution. Edison’s philosophy was to eliminate solutions that wouldn’t work, thereby moving him that much closer to a successful solution.

Many sports fans know Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs, and Babe Ruth hit 714. But how many know Aaron struck out 1,383 times, and Ruth 1,330? Looking at it another way, that’s a lot of failure! Not everything works, but the reality of innovation is trying out options, seeing what works and building on positive results.

California is a state of innovation. As a pioneer state, it has attracted the type of people who don’t accept the status quo when they feel the status quo isn’t quite right. They look for changes to make things better.

In our world of water and energy, publicly owned water agencies and public power utilities are perfect innovators. They take problems—and broad goals set locally and statewide—and develop programs and solutions that address the needs of their communities.

In the winter 2021 edition of California Water & Power magazine, we highlight the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has a goal of achieving 100% renewable energy power supply by 2045. Can it be done? Why not? It may not be feasible by 2025, but with consistent advancement in technology and persistence, I’d bet on it by 2045.

There are many other water and electric agencies rapidly innovating, solving local problems and addressing needs with new combinations. Many have received CMUA’s Resource Efficiency & Community Service awards, which highlight innovative programs among CMUA’s membership ( resource-efficiency-awards).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg and, as they say on TV: But there’s more!

Palo Alto Utilities gives grants to local citizens and companies to develop, test and implement innovative new technology. Yuba Water and Placer County Water Agency are managing their watersheds to avoid damage from wildfire.

Long Beach Water is extending water-use efficiency efforts to disadvantaged communities. Metropolitan Water District and its member agencies have helped reduce per-capita water use in Southern California by more than one-third since 1990.
The list goes on and on.

Publicly owned electric utilities and water agencies are local laboratories of innovation. Each is faced with different circumstances; each is developing solutions that fit its community. And each is creating many “Wow, look what’s happening here” moments.