The Power of Innovation

Baked into the culture of innovation at Alabama Power Company is the element of surprise.

The notion of the powerful electrical utility sharply focused on innovation might surprise most people, according to Mark Crosswhite, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Alabama Power Company, which provides electricity to more than 1.4 million customers across the state. But the innovative spirit is alive and well, Crosswhite says.

“Most people don’t think of an electric utility as particularly innovative because we’ve always been here,” Crosswhite says. “But we are seeing such a change in the kind of products that people want, the kind of devices that are available, that spirit of innovation is driving much of our thinking here at the company.”

Right now, among the biggest questions at the power company is “how can we better serve our customers by taking advantage of technology,” Crosswhite says.

“One of the things we’ve done here at the company to jump-start that idea, to create that kind of culture, is a competition we had a year or so ago called Spark. The basis behind the Spark competition was to get employees to come up with ideas. They are closer to the customers. They’re the ones having the day-to-day interface with customers. So we asked, what can we do to be more effective, to bring to market products that customers want? We had 150 ideas submitted and we’re working through those right now to see which ones are the most viable,” Crosswhite says.

“Technology changes everything so rapidly. It presents opportunities for us to serve our customers better and provide new opportunities,” he says. When you look past the present-day electrical utility into the history of Alabama Power, you see that innovation and an embrace of new technology is the essence of their origin story.

“Innovation is really our origin. We are a technology company and we were founded on the basis of technology when we were first formed a hundred and twelve years ago. Our predecessors started building dams across the state to provide electrical power to our customers. Of course, at the time we didn’t have any customers so we had to create the electricity and then create a market for it. The idea of innovation runs through our company from the very beginning,” Crosswhite says.

Today the essence of that innovation is focused on smart home technology and electric vehicles, innovations that will transform our lives in the years to come.

Take for example, the Smart Neighborhood recently created at Ross Bridge.

Smart Neighborhood is a state-of-the-art community of 62 high-performance homes featuring advanced smart systems and appliances, connected to a community-scale microgrid. Performance data and energy use gathered from the homes’ innovative features will provide insight into how neighborhoods of the future will function, and which programs and services can provide energy solutions for Alabama Power customers.

The project is a partnership with homebuilder Signature Homes, researchers at Alabama Power’s parent Southern Company and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, along with other technology vendors. Signature Homes is overseeing the construction and sale of the homes at the Reynolds Landing community. All 62 homes have sold.

The Alabama project features the Southeast’s first community-scale microgrid. It is comprised of solar panels, battery energy storage and a natural gas generator that supplements power from the existing electric grid.

Each home in the Smart Neighborhood is built with emerging energy-efficient building features, and equipped with leading-edge technology, including a high-efficiency heat pump, an intelligence home comfort system with an Infinity Touch thermostat, voice-activated security, smart locks, cameras, interconnected appliances, triple-pane windows, LED lighting and more.

“It is how homes of the future will function,” Crosswhite says.

The other major technological change underway is the race into electric cars, a development that will have a huge impact on electric utilities. In many ways, the infrastructure needs that the rise of electric vehicles will uncover echo the very beginnings of Alabama Power’s drive to electrify the state in the early years of the last century.

“Tesla revolutionized it, but now we’re seeing most if not all of the automobile manufacturers coming out with electric vehicles. To get off the ground, we’re going to need infrastructure across the states that would have charging stations. So when you stop at a restaurant to eat, we’re going to have infrastructure developed to take care of charging your vehicle. We’ll need to have charger facilities located along the interstate at various locations for people to charge up,” Crosswhite says.

“But we also know that most people will charge electric vehicles at home overnight, and so we have developed some services and pricing that will allow customers to plug their cars in overnight in a very, very cost effective way to fuel those cars.”

In smart housing and electric cars, Alabama Power can “act as an aggregator for all these types of developments,” he says.

Another initiative of the power company that can be traced to the very beginnings of the utility is economic development. “Economic development goes back to the very beginning of our company in part because we knew we had to bring business in in order to develop electricity,” Crosswhite says.

“We are seeing a lot of activity right now, a lot of positive activity in economic development. Businesses and industries are looking at the state, and so we feel good about that. How many fish can we land will be the big question. We have strong communities across the state and an elected leadership that is very committed to bringing new businesses to the state, as well as keeping the business we already have here prosperous. That’s an important part of economic development. We have a great group of leaders who want the state to succeed,” Crosswhite says.

But there are challenges, particularly in the realm of education and workforce development. “In the next four to five years, two-thirds of jobs are going to need post-secondary education. Will we be able to fill these high-tech sophisticated jobs? Right now, we are falling behind and that’s something that we take very seriously,” he says.

“We have been working very closely with our two-year college system across the state to figure out how we can design a program that will enable them to take young people and have them ready to go to work when they graduate. The Alabama Workforce Council is an effort to put together a plan in the state that will ensure we have the type of education system that will develop the type of employees we need for the next century.

“We have a lot of natural advantages, but in workforce development, education and regional cooperation, we do have some challenges as well,” he says.

Before taking the helm at Alabama Power, Crosswhite served as executive vice president and chief operating officer for Southern Company, Alabama Power’s parent company. He was responsible for Southern Company’s Operations organization, which includes Generation, Transmission, Engineering and Construction Services, System Planning, Research and Environmental Affairs, Fleet Operations, and Trading.

Crosswhite also was responsible for Southern Power, which provides energy to municipalities, electric cooperatives, and investor-owned utilities. Crosswhite started at Southern Company in 2004 as senior vice president and general counsel for Southern Company Generation. Prior to that, he represented the company in private practice for 17 years in a wide variety of energy and regulatory matters.

In 2006, Crosswhite joined Alabama Power as senior vice president and counsel, where he oversaw the company’s legal matters. In 2008, he was named executive vice president for External Affairs, where he directed Regulatory Affairs, Economic and Community Development, Public Relations, Environmental Affairs, and Governmental Affairs. In 2011, Crosswhite became president and chief executive officer of Gulf Power, a Southern Company subsidiary based in Pensacola, Fl.

Crosswhite is chairman of the board of both the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and the United Way of Central Alabama. He serves on numerous corporate, civic, and nonprofit boards, including the Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham Business Alliance, Business Council of Alabama, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., Southern Research, the University of Alabama Law School Foundation, and Leadership Birmingham. He also serves on the President’s Advisory Council of the Freshwater Land Trust and is a member of the President’s Cabinet of the University of Alabama.

Crosswhite is a native of Decatur. His family has deep roots in the state, dating to the early 19th century. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1984 from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a J.D. degree in 1987 from the University of Alabama School of Law. Crosswhite and his wife, Jane Emily, have two sons.

“One of our sons has graduated and is working at Regions. The other is at the University of Alabama right now. I think all of us who have children, we want them to be able to stay here and prosper here. We have to have jobs for our young people, or they will go to Atlanta or some other city. That’s the personal side of economic development for me,” Crosswhite says.

“From the business side, we’ve always been involved in economic development. Where we stand now is that Alabama Power is devoted to Alabama. For us to grow, for us to be successful, we need to see more economic development and more businesses come to Alabama and that’s the way Alabama Power will grow.”