The 'Energy 2020' challenge: Getting the cable business to look at its power bill in 5 years

Daniel Frankel, FierceCableDENVER--I came into Wednesday's SCTE "Energy 2020" panel primed for engagement.

Back in Los Angeles, I had just successfully manhandled the local water-authority's bureaucracy to subsidize $8,000 worth of low-water landscaping. Not only was the ripping out of a bunch of drought-ravaged crab-grass from the front and back of my West Adams house mostly underwritten, I now have cost certainty--on the low end--on a resource that's projected to be progressively scarce and expensive over the next decade.

The Frankels also drive their kids around in a Prius. But I'll just be honest and say this is all driven by cold, hard, economic pragmatism--greed, for lack of a better word--not really environmental consciousness.

So I arrived at Cable-Tec Expo Monday primed for spinning on pretty much any energy savings agenda. Worried about spiraling program costs? Well, every operator has a proverbial Christmas tree of potential cost savings across their network.

And the SCTE's Energy 2020 initiative, previously announced but laid out in detail in an amply-attended afternoon panel featuring all the various program committee heads, seems like an excellent idea. The ambitious program calls for at least a 20 percent reduction on a unit basis in cable plant power production by 2020, as well as a 25 percent cut in energy cost by unit over that same span. The plan also wants to reduce grid dependency by 10 percent over the next six years.

"We're challenging our partners to be disruptive in all parts of the ecosystem," said John Schanz, chief network officer and executive VP for Comcast Cable, who oversees the Energy 2020 program and keynoted Wednesday's event. "We don't want to keep increasing our environmental footprint and be in a place where we'll need cranes to move everything around because it's so dense, and where we'll have to have a power plant next to our facilities."

The SCTE's slide presentation may have been colored green, but Energy 2020 is founded in economic pragmatism.

Schanz's colleague, Theresa Hennesy, senior VP and group technical advisor for Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), moderated the panel of program committee heads. Energy 2020 exists, she said, "not because we can't get energy, but because we might not be able to afford it at some point. Five years from now, I want to look back on this day as a game-changer for how we use energy and how we work in a collaborative way to move forward."

I was little taken aback when the first audience question, from a guy working for a major MSO, essentially was, "How much is all of this going to cost?"

It may have been just me, but I could feel the air leaking out of the densely packed Denver Convention Center meeting room.

Later that afternoon, I took a 30-minute car ride to Centennial, Colo., to visit Comcast Wholesale's massive studio and content origination facility. It was an impressive tour of a state-of-the-art facility that services hundreds of cable channels with live and VOD programming, providing everything from disaster backup for networks like the Golf Channel to content origination for regional sports networks like the Pac-12 Network.

When I was there, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had just finished shooting a Papa John's commercial, alongside NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana.

They do it all at the Dry Creek Road facility, which also includes three 5,000-square-foot data centers and 22 satellite downlinks, along with seven uplinks. But what the facility seems to do mostly is chew power--more than the entire town of Centennial combined. Built for redundancy, the place even keeps 44,000 barrels of diesel fuel on hand to power its generators. It has a deal with the local power authority to serve as Centennial's backup supply in the event of the zombie apocalypse.

I was a little surprised when my tour guide, VP of Operations Richard Buchanan, said the power bill comes to only around $100,000 a month.

I quickly did the math--sure, Comcast could probably cut into that $1.2 million it spends a year to power the plant. But operationally speaking for such a high-volume plant, what's $1.2 million in the scheme of things?

I immediately understood the gentleman's "How much is all this going to cost" question … and I also understood the SCTE program's challenge: How do you make the cable industry understand that in a volatile world with a very uncertain energy future, $1.2 million could turn into real money not too far down the road?

"It's not as if we're in a crisis today, but if we could end up in that place," Schanz noted.--Dan