SXSW: Musings from “South-By” and Uplight’s Debut with Duke Energy and GM

By Dan Burak on

Duke, General Motors, and Uplight at SXSW

Now that I’ve attended my first SXSW conference, I feel fully entitled, and maybe cool enough, to just call it “SX” or “South-By.” I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

As a brand marketer, SXSW has been a “bucket list” conference for me for many years. My ticket got punched this year, as we were able to assemble an amazing panel about an important topic and our session, “EVs and Utilities – Friend or Foe?” was accepted for inclusion in this year’s program.

More on that in a bit, but since SXSW’s largess has become a bit like Everything Everywhere All At Once, I felt I needed to experience some aspects of the conference beyond our session. 

As I was scrolling for my first session, I came across a conversation with Sydney Sweeney. She had just hosted Saturday Night Live and was premiering a movie she produced and starred in at the conference. As good a place as any to start. I thought I was doing well to arrive 25 minutes early. Rookie move. The line was around the corner and they were already announcing that it was at capacity. Feeling a bit unmoored and sensing that this was more cutthroat than I’d imagined, I saw a long line for a different session not far from me and, without having any idea what it was for, jumped in.

I ended up in a huge auditorium listening to a former monk share, in Ted Talk style, how to be more present in my life via a convenient mnemonic involving five “E”s. The bottom line? Ditch the screens (very good advice, by the way).

After this, I started to get the hang of the whole thing. I attended a session about whether or not brands can be creators (Answer: Yes, sort of, especially if you – wait for it – engage creators), and a session cleverly titled “Can the Cow Be the How?” about efforts to reduce the amount of methane that cows emit.

Soon, it was on to our session, hosted and moderated by our own Chief Market Innovation Officer, Hannah Bascom. Hannah was joined on stage by Lon Huber, SVP pricing and customer solutions at Duke Energy, and Aseem Kapur, Head of Products at GM Energy.

Today, there is more change in these two industries – the energy space and the automotive space – than there has been since each of them got their start roughly 140 years ago. At the same time, utilities and automotive companies have not historically had any formal relationship.

This was the basis of our session. EVs have been named both an enemy of the grid as well as its potential savior. Recent forecasts around adoption are all over the place. What’s the real scoop? Some highlights:

      • On energy supply keeping up with demand: Lon from Duke shared that, at a macro level, they’re on top of how to increase supply. When it comes to “hyper-local” distribution, though, they’re continuing to do advanced modeling to better understand and anticipate needs. When it comes to EVs, as long as managed charging is adopted, it becomes a less critical concern.


      • On changing habits with EVs: GM’s Aseem noted that 80% of charging happens at home, which is a very different behavior than gassing up at a station. They are finding, though, that consumers are more than happy to have EVs interact with the grid as long as they have the charge they need when they want it – it’s about building up that trust over time.


      • On V2G/V2H (Vehicle to Grid, Vehicle to Home): Aseem shared that later this year, GM is launching their first V2H effort with the Silverado. “There’s a lot of power in that battery – more than you need.” Employee testing has been really positive and, once drivers have a certainty of having their charging ready when they need it, they’re ready to think about V2G compatibility.


      • On VPP industry confidence: Hannah pressed the other panelists around virtual power plants and V2G: What do we need to build confidence in these technologies to spur adoption? Lon emphasized that we need all these devices to help in this transition and that they will complement, but not replace, additional central generation and transmission. 


      • On the importance of customer engagement: Knowing that most customers don’t think about charging until they “get the car home in the garage,” Hannah invited our panelists to talk about how they can engage customers earlier and more strongly in the purchase process. Lon brought up Duke’s “Grid to Garage” concept: While utilities aren’t often seen as the “go-to” for customer programs, “this is not your parent’s utility.” Utilities can help you find an electrician to aid in installs and put purchase options in front of customers, seamlessly. Aseem shared GM’s idea of “white glove” service that also includes engaging customers early – at the dealers, where 90% of the U.S. lives within a mile of a GM lot. 


      • On barriers to V2G adoption: Aseem and Lon agreed that today, affordability is the biggest barrier to adoption. The cost of hardware is high, the vehicles themselves are expensive, and customers need line of sight into a payback. Aseem emphasized the need for EVs in the $40K – $50K price range, more of which are coming this year from GM.


    Hannah asked for a bottom-line answer: are EVs and Utilities friends or foes? Lon’s response? “We all have to be connected to get maximum value for the grid, program structures, incentives, and customers. We’re friends – with grid benefits!”

    After our lively session, I finished my SXSW experience meeting up with some friends and exploring some new music being showcased. Check out Spain’s Yo Diablo’s “amazing guitar wild fingerpicking duo with screaming guitars and infernal chords.”  

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