Philosophy and Innovation make good Bedfellows

A conversation with John Del Monaco, Manager, Emerging Technology and Transfer, Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc.
By Jo Grogan
John Del Monaco is a practical innovator. His work at Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc. (PSEG) is to transfer technology to use within company operations and as part of the services offered to customers to improve costs, services, or both.

Before he implements an idea, he wants scientific proof and an ability to make a common-sense application. In this interview, he describes a collaborative innovation model from an industry-wide perspective, and discusses how he keeps his mind open to new ideas through the writings of great philosophers and thought-leaders.

Jo Grogan (JG) : With your focus on emergent technology and transfer, has the current global economic climate affected progress? Has the new climate posed any challenges?

John Del MonacoJohn Del Monaco: Intuitively, you would think there would be adverse repercussions, but because of issues related to global climate change and efficiency, innovation is still a high priority within PSEG and many other companies and organizations.

When you read in the popular press about the issues and concerns today, you can see why PSEG's initiatives are important. Look at the initiatives being mentioned for stimulating the economy—green jobs—jobs to help the environment. There are discussions about incenting job creation for such jobs with funding from the Federal government—there is a high priority being placed on energy.

The challenge here is in resources. Budgets are affected, but we will continue to work in a strong way for technology innovation and development. There are no changes at the company on our priorities. With the priority on global climate change, CO2 emissions, and similar issues—we continue to innovate through the downturn.

Since our discussion today centers on innovation, I want to be sure we're talking about the same thing. My definition of innovation includes the importance of what you DO with an invention the results of research. Research on a shelf is of no use—it may be interesting, but it is not useful from an innovation standpoint. What you DO with technology is important. A large part of what we do at PSEG is spend a lot of time to transfer technology into operations—emerging or commercial.

JG : What is the most difficult problem you and your team have solved?

John Del Monaco: There are two difficult problems, from an overall perspective. The first is maintaining focus on what we need. Keeping a primary focus on the areas we have identified and resisting temptations of looking and getting lost in the tens of thousands of technology ideas that come up every day. Have you ever sent a child to look up a word in the dictionary? Notice how they become fascinated by twenty other words, to the point of maybe forgetting about the one they went to look up in the first place? The same thing can happen in a research organization—there are so many interesting things—we are hit by many ideas each day, and cannot possibly pursue them all. Keeping focused on our priorities is the key.

The second challenge we face is driving the innovation through the organization so it is used as widely and broadly as possible. This is what will bring the biggest success.

JG: What is the most exciting innovation you or your teams were involved in developing? What factors made or make it so exciting?

John Del Monaco: We fund technology development collaboratively with other companies in our industry through Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). We collaboratively address common issues as an industry.
Some projects can go on for years—we take the results and transfer them to use in our own operations and extract value from it. Unless you can use it to lower cost or address a customer need or other tangible reason, the result will not be successful.

We also focus on long-term emerging technology, such as superconductivity, fuel cells, renewable energy sources, energy storage systems, super capacitors, etc. We follow these closely for impact.

We spend the lion's share of our funding through EPRI. This helps each company in the collaborative to address issues of mutual need. We jointly share in the result of the research. Our challenge as a company is to then take and transfer the results to our operations.

Worker safety is a high priority for our company. When I was reviewing our funding priorities through EPRI, I identified a gap. None of our projects were addressing worker safety. Safety is VERY important to PSEG—it affects our workers, our customers, and our bottom line. We think about and drive safety from every area. So through EPRI we funded a new line of safety research for Ergonomics. The outcomes have been beneficial.

We have reduced musculoskeletal injuries to the shoulders and arms of our line workers by creating new technology to help them handle their jobs—new tools, a lot of them battery powered, help our workers put less strain on their bodies and get better quality work in less time. The savings from this one program alone could be in the millions. It has been widely dispersed throughout the company in both the Northern and Southern regions—a very good success.

JG: You mentioned that the majority of your research and ideas come from your projects with EPRI. Do ideas for new technologies come from other sources?

John Del Monaco: Yes, sometimes. We are approached by people with new ideas all the time. The problem is that we have to sort through them and understand what makes sense and what is nonsense, especially ideas that have been hyped through the media before they get to us. In some cases, technology has been touted as the next best thing with not data to back it up—just testimonials. Nothing good can come from these types of situations.

JG: So how to you sort the wheat from the chaff?

John Del Monaco: By getting into the science behind it and making sure that the claims are buttressed by test data and reliable information. By keeping aware of and tracking other industries and how the development is going. Basically, you have to have good science behind good ideas in this industry to make them work.

JG: What, if any, ideation tools or innovation software have you used or are familiar with?

John Del Monaco: I have read about tools, but for the most part, I have not used them. I have not found any that helped me. The process of innovation itself is second nature to me.

JG: What innovation methodologies, theories, and training are used at PSEG (e.g., Six Sigma, DeBono, etc.)?

John Del Monaco: We don't use Six Sigma for our research and development. We focus on the technical application of innovation, and our training is around strategic thinking, prioritizing, and effective processes.

JG: What books, articles, blogs, or other media on the topic of innovation have you read? Are there any that you recommend to employees of PSEG?

John Del Monaco: I read the MIT Technology Review, Scientific American, Science News, Wired Magazine, and reports from EPRI on technology updates. As far as books, I generally read philosophy—this helps calm my mind and develop clear thinking. I find I can function better. If you read about technology or innovation or research all the time, you miss things—patterns—and in reading solely about those things you can stifle innovation.

JG: So which books on philosophy do you find most helpful in calming your mind and clarifying thinking?

John Del Monaco: Religious philosophy is fascinating. Alain du Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is both thought-provoking and calming. I've also been reading An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, by The Dalai Lama. Confessions of St. Augustine also helps clarify thinking.

In reading these philosophical writings, it helps clarify my thinking and makes it clear that we never can achieve perfection—that everything is unfinished and never done. You can have lots of success, but never the perfect solution—it doesn't exist. So we must always keep on looking for different and better ways of doing things.

I've learned that there are a few truths:
Things happen around you all the time—always be prepared for the unexpected.
Life is not a continuum—it can be changed.
Problems are not just a single threat—you should think of other ways problems can impact and be impacted.
The path to innovation is a process—understand the relationship of things and go from there.

JG: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks such as that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

John Del Monaco: I am familiar with them, but we use EPRI for our collaborative creation. We find it is a better way to engage in projects. Everybody—20 utilities—pool their funds and work on projects together. The results are published in reports, we work together in meetings to keep abreast of what's happening on each project, and then we get the results of the research. Our job then is to take it and say, "How am I gonna use it?"—This is where our internal team takes over and makes it work operationally for the benefit of our company and customers.

JG: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about innovation at PSEG? What's on the horizon?

John Del Monaco: There are all kinds of things. One thing is for sure – not just at PSEG, but at others—lots of changes are coming. Distributed generation, lighting/LED's, plug-in vehicles, energy storage, nanoscience, renewable thin film, batteries that tie together—lots of work in sensor technology, medical technology—things that didn't exist before—the same things in medical science for blood analysis and pressure are being used and applied to electrical delivery systems. We'll see more on Smart Grid—Integration of technologies, communications networks to analyze our grid. Distributed resources are coming—not just electrical distribution—the business cycle. The model is changing going forward—the flattening of the Internet is moving us forward.

PSEG is a great company, and it is never boring. I love my job, and this is a very exciting time—things are happening fast. The next 20-25 years will bring big changes all for the better—the availability, adaptability, and use of the new technology and techniques will lead to better opportunities, higher efficiency, better service and reliability and customer interaction.

I'm excited about it—it's a great time.

Mr. John L. Del Monaco, P.E. has been with PSEG since 1974. In his current position of Manager-Emerging Technology and Transfer he is responsible for strategically managing the Company's investment in technology development/R&D.

Mr. Del Monaco works directly with the lines of business to identify and transfer new technologies for operational improvements as measured by the business value of technologies transferred into operations. He is also responsible for the assessment and demonstration of emerging technologies, such as plug-in hybrid vehicles, fuel cells, distributed generation/photovoltaic renewable systems, and advanced energy storage systems. One important area in which PSEG has focused its research is on introducing and demonstrating the Smart Utility concept (Smart Grid), wherein operating problems are anticipated and addressed before they progress into actual customer outages. Integral to this concept is the widespread use of microsensors and on-line data collection and analysis. The Smart Utility concept is being transformed into a series of integrated projects that will demonstrate the key applications of microsensors, telecommunications, and integrated data analysis and decision making, all working harmoniously in real time.

Mr. Del Monaco is considered an expert in advanced energy storage technologies. He has written several papers on the subject and has directed various researches related to hydrogen production and storage, electrochemical energy storage, thermal energy storage, and distributed energy resource technologies. He has been an advisor to the Electric Power Research Institute for over 20 years and has chaired many committees and working groups related to advance end-use, energy delivery, and energy storage technologies. He is a currently chairman of EPRI’s Energy Storage Committee.

He holds a BSEE degree from the University of Bridgeport and an MBA degree from Rutgers University, and is a licensed Professional Engineer in NJ.

Feedback Welcome: If you would like to comment on the above article, please feel free to contact Jo Grogan. If you would like to suggest other innovation decision makers for me to interview, please just let me know.

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