Last week nearly 14,000 energy professionals descended on New Orleans for one of the most significant events on the utility calendar, DistribuTECH. The massive booths of power solution providers, the four days of events, and the thousands of attendees stand in stark contrast to the humble beginnings of the conference in 1991 when just a couple hundred people came to the first event. Over the last 29 years, DistribuTECH has grown rapidly and played an important role in conversations around technological innovations in power delivery. However, with the industry undergoing such a dramatic transformation as it becomes more distributed, decarbonized, and digital, does DistribuTECH still matter? The more important question might be, will utilities still matter?

The answer to both questions over the next five to ten years is yes. Transformation takes time, and the current grid plays such an essential role in the economy that utilities and conferences like DistribuTECH, which focus on the people, processes, and technology delivering power will have a place. However, as customer preferences continue to evolve, and energy increasingly becomes a consumer technology it is possible that the industry conference behemoth that is DistribuTECH will lose significance.

For DistribuTECH and utilities in general to have relevance for more than the next ten years their focus will need to shift beyond power delivery and operations. For an industry and event whose culture is built on engineering knowledge and logic, this won’t be easy. An unrelenting concentration on serving the customer and innovation will need to be at the core of every planning meeting, systems deployment, and CAPEX spending decision. For the first time at a DistribuTECH conference, these types of conversations were taking place. Walking the floor of the exhibition hall, attendees could watch videos, examine models, and immerse themselves in VR simulators focused on distributed energy resources, EVs, micro-grids, and dozens of other technologies that are customer-centric.

The DistribuTECH exhibition hall wasn’t the only place that the customer was taking center stage at this year’s event. Six out of the eleven conference tracks were related to customers. The general session keynotes were also focused on how to better serve customers and spark innovation. Terence Donnelly, president and chief operating officer of Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), said that in this “new era of power we’re not in the utility business anymore.”

What business are ComEd, Exelon, and other utilities in then? Terence Donnelly maintained that they must be in the business of creating environmentally sustainable communities that serve their customers’ needs. Paul Hinnenkamp, executive vice president, and chief operating officer of Entergy, identified evolving customer expectations as they key driver beyond an industry-wide need to shift to providing the products and services customers want and the outcomes they desire. He sounded a clarion call for utilities looking to ensure long-term financial success by focusing on developing the products and services that positively change the lives of customers. “If this business is going to be disrupted, why don’t we disrupt it ourselves?” Hinnenkamp asked.

Wednesday’s keynote from Luke Williams, a New York University marketing professor and co-founder of the NYU Innovation Labs, was particularly prescient as it focused on breaking down long-standing, profitable business models to drive success into the future. Professor Williams challenged utilities to innovate like master chefs in the kitchen. “All the ingredients can be rearranged to grow the value of your utility,” Williams said. “Uber didn’t invent new ingredients, but it evaluated the ingredients and came up with a better recipe.”

DistribuTECH was the go-to conference for engineers and operations focused utility professionals for the first twenty-five years of its existence. During that time, the word customer wouldn’t have been mentioned. Now there is broad recognition that for the industry to truly thrive over the next twenty-five years utilities must do more than provide power, they must become a network dedicated to providing energy services to their customers.

Does DistribuTECH still matter? Will any utility conference still matter? Will utilities still matter? The answer to all these questions is yes if the focus quickly moves to create a customer-centric energy system.