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WGL Energy and FLIR Headline TechVibe Radio

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting


TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.

Get your weekly dose of Pittsburgh's tech ecosystem on TechVibe Radio as we hang out with WGL Energy to learn more about the competitive energy market and what's driving innovation in this fast-moving sector.

Plus, learn more about FLIR's $20.5 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to rapidly develop novel fabrics with embedded catalysts and chemistries that can fight and reduce chemical and biological threats upon contact.


It is time for some TechVibe Radio. Audrey, you know how much I look forward to Saturday mornings. I like getting up early, drinking my coffee, getting all buzzed up so we can talk to the coolest people in Pittsburgh tech sector. Simple as that.

It's great. I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to talk to these two gentlemen about energy all things related to energy. So let's see who we have in the house. Let them introduce themselves. First introductions from our guests. Who's up first.

My name is Clint Zediak and I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, moved away for about 20 years but then boomeranged back about seven years ago. I've been in energy over 23 years now and WGL for seven.  I'm the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for our retail energy. And so where did you live? I grew up in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and I currently live in Mount Lebanon. But where did you go for 20 years. I spent two years in Iowa at a nuclear power plant and then went to grad school and lived outside Philadelphia for about 12-13 years in Delaware County. Okay, man, that's so good to have you back. It's good to be back. 

My name is James. Jim's first. And I'm also here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I'm born and raised here also, I had a short stint in Cleveland, Ohio for about two to three years, and then made my way back to Pittsburgh. I currently live in green tree. I've been with wg out one year, and in the industry about 10 years coming up in 2022. And I am the manager of mass markets at WGL. So let's talk about let's talk about the company plan. Let's get set the table for us.

Yeah, sure. So WGL Energy is the competitive retail shop of Washington Gas, which is the local natural gas utility in Washington DC. It got its charter literally lighting the Capitol. Hence the name Washington Gas. They gave us the charter 170 years ago. Well, the company has been around a long time. Who energy the retail shop where I work in Jim. We're celebrating our 25 year anniversary this year, this June. So we've been serving customers in the DC area there now about six states in the Mid Atlantic for the last 25 years, which we're pretty proud of. And how long in Pittsburgh for we've been in Pittsburgh, I say the last five or six. Okay. And we have a local office, regional sales office in the golf tower. We're happy to be there and have a lot of local partnerships with various entities, including the Pittsburgh Penguins and some other folks. cool, very cool.

Conversation rolling here, Audrey. I mean, there's so much to talk about when it comes to energy and really talking about the competitive, you know, energy market, and how's this work? It's kind of like, how do you work with customers? How do you help them save money and gain efficiencies and all that kind of stuff?

So that's a great question. On the electricity side, there's only about 16 states in the country that have competitive energy markets. So it's not a well understood industry. No matter what you do your local utility, whether it's your gas or electric utility, whether it's Columbia gas or Duquesne light will always deliver your commodity to you. What people like w geoenergy do is we offer a financial product, essentially, price stability, various green options, if you want to support renewable energy, whether it's wind, solar, or even carbon offsets, we give customers the ability to do that. And if anyone follows energy, I think we all saw what happened in Texas, and what can happen to consumers and they don't have price stability, and they're subject to the index prices of the market. There can be some pretty disasters result. So we essentially take that risk from customers and they will have no joy Price security for one, two out of five years if you're a large commercial customer won't be with a $30,000 electric bill because guess surge price product.

And I think that's a great analogy that I was told I entered in the industry that always kind of hit home was it similar to if you take a flashlight, right, you could put different batteries in that flashlight. No matter what there's still light that's gonna come out of that flashlight, right. But you have different options you have Energizer you have door to sell. And maybe each one has a, you know, a unique offering that it has that makes you choose that versus another. So at the end of the day, you're still getting that light that's coming out a flashlight, but essentially that the industry allows you to tap choice on on how that comes out of the flashlight.

It is so funny, though, like how do you educate people on this? Because I think you've got to educate them and then becomes the aha, right? Yeah. You? Yeah, I mean, tell us about that process?

So that's a great question. And you know, the state of Pennsylvania has done a good job over the years, their market opened up in the late 90s. And they have a pretty robust website called pa power switch comm where anyone can go in, find a local utility, whether it's electric or gas, and get various prices, that they can then choose what's best for their household budget, whether they want the fixed price or an index price. You know, similar to buying a stock, if you think energy prices are going down, you can pick an index price and enjoy them, the price is coming down. If you think they're going up, you buy a fixed price. But yeah, the consumer education can be difficult, we try to get out in our local communities, by working with people like the green building Alliance. in Pittsburgh, we're proud supporters, district, Pittsburgh Penguins in Washington, DC, we help support Children's National Hospital, various organizations in the area. And so we try to get out of the community. And we have, you know, a local trusted brand that we try to promote, to let people know we're here. We have regional sales offices in your area, we're in your community, and just encourage people to go to a power switch and shop.

Yeah, and I think our marketing efforts are always looking to find ways to educate customers, I think before you can obviously sell to customers, you have to educate them on who you are, what you do, why you do it. Obviously, over the last year, it's been a little tougher to get out in front of people as much as you could. So we've really tried to make our presence felt, through our websites, as Clint mentioned, pa power switch, we released a series of animated videos that that are consumer friendly, where people can kind of watch and, and and hopefully gain an understanding of of our industry and who wg Allah in particular is interesting, I find it really cool that you're doing this because I mean, I get hit with a lot of these offers in the mail saying, hey, lock in, it's so and so. Or you're, you'll ever be doomed or you're being screwed right now. And you don't know it's really confused me like maybe I'm like really spending more than I should on energy. Or I want to make sure my energy comes from like a renewable source or something. So I'm feeling like this pa power switch calm can maybe help levy that confusion and recently that you're on the state, you get a lot of these notices in the mail. And so absolutely. And then when you're shopping and you receive solicitations like that, I think it's important to understand the company, you know, where are they located? How long have they been around, where they share contract terms and conditions with you upfront are the prices fixed are there what are called teaser fees are going to bring you in at a low rate and increase the rate on you and six months into the contract. So it is important to understand the history of the company as well as the contract terms and conditions they are offering you. And then green has become a very popular product recently. Now the two prominent options there are what are called RECs, or renewable energy certificates. And they are basically attributes of either wind generation or solar are the two most popular. And then there's also something called carbon offsets where there are projects out there that will basically eliminate a metric ton of co2 from the atmosphere. And that can be quantified and monetized and consumers can purchase those to help offset their own carbon footprint. Very cool.

Well, you know, you're right, because it does become so intimidating. But if I'm you know, if I'm running a business, having a better understanding of what my cost star makes the difference between me succeeding and not.

That is where the money's going. I mean, I'm of big John Lennon fan and one of his lyrics are life's what happens when you're busy making other plans. Companies are going to spend on energy households are going to spend on energy no matter what you do, you're going to spend on energy so you may as well understand what you're spending it on and how to get the best out of it. And if you are a company and you want to green or offset your carbon footprint, you can buy those products and that differentiates your brand. And then you can attract customers. And we see with these, a lot of millennials, a lot of younger folks are demanding that from not only their colleges and universities, but also their rental car companies, airlines, you're starting to see how carbon offset products.

Well, it's interesting,  Clint, because we say that, you know, people are demanding that, but essentially, as we, you know, people start looking at these companies that they go to work for, they really want to understand their values, and they want to understand their footprint, and what imprint they're leaving, or you know, what they're extracting. So I would think that all of this really does matter. It's actually part of a brand and talent strategy. But you wouldn't think of energy like not that long ago, you made that pitch. I wouldn't say everyone Oh, that's, you know, that's really important. But it really is today.

Yeah. And it's, it's funny, you can see at the consumer level, what, you know, I would say, like you said several years ago, you know, a lot of people would hear renewable energy or green energy, and how can I get involved with that? And, and the reality is that it is a bit more expensive. So you know, they would see those costs and maybe shy away, right, and go back to kind of fossil fuels and things like that, but you're seeing a shift. And and and now people want it, and they understand that, hey, I might be paying a little bit more but but kind of, as you mentioned, it's leaving the imprint, you know, what imprint Am I going to use through the energy that I procure on my end? So it's, it's definitely been a significant shift that I think in really, and I would say, the last 567 years, where you see you see consumers much more, much more heightened sensitivity towards, you know, where their energy is coming from? Absolutely. People go on to someone who is left, and it's like, I want to get so much. And I'm just curious to learn more about like, you know, like, with the products to WGL. I go to this site, like what can I expect to find? And how can I save money or be better the environment or both?

Yeah, so I'll let Jim talk about our residential product offering we have in Pennsylvania, which I think is pretty innovative. But on the carbon offset front, we have a carbon offset product that we get from three different projects within the main Atlantic region, mostly northern Maryland, Southern Pennsylvania. So we're pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, you know, right in our backyard, if you want the Mid Atlantic, every carbon offset, we sell, we donate a post to those profits to the Chesapeake Bay foundation. And then they in turn, take those monies and plant trees, and you get matching federal grants. So it's kind of a doubling down effect, as opposed as buying a regular carbon offset. And we've had that program for 10 years now and have been able to give about $2 million to the Chesapeake Bay foundation. That's a lot of trees. Yeah, it is. I forget the total, maybe 30 40,000 trees last time I looked, but quite a bit.

And we reached we recently launched a subscription product in MPa for our electricity cut residential electricity customers called power lock. And essentially what that is, is it gives you based on your usage and your home, it gives you a set dollar amount that your price will be for your your electric supply also includes 100% renewable energy. There's no cancel fees associated with it. But what's what's unique and cool about it is a lot of rates that you see may come in a cents per kilowatt hour, or a cents per therms, which I think could could make somebody question what does that actually mean? This is just a flat dollar amount that's specific to your individual home. And it essentially gives you a type of budget certainty on your energy spend throughout the year, which I think again, after after what's going on in the last year, I think everybody's looking for, to be able to control their budget and kind of know what, what's coming out. One of the things anything that you've learned during COVID, anything that like you've learned that you might want to share.

It's interesting how people do use energy. For instance, we sold a lot of commercial real estate, universities, colleges, schools, because historically, they would be good energy users, and we could help them manage their budget. Obviously, when those folks shut down, other energy consumption went down, maybe not as much as we expected. The one thing we found fascinating was pizza shops kept using the same, if not even more. So from our perspective. And we serve a few 100,000 customers across the Mid Atlantic it was just interesting seeing their their consumption patterns change during the pandemic that now as we slowly get back to normal, and then we're there to help them as much as we can as far as making sure they can meet their needs. Absolutely great stuff guys.

Quinn's Zodiac and James puce from w GL energy Gouda p a power and check this out What a fun conversation with you guys. I mean, I'm thinking about pizza right now. Come on. Thank you very much for Thank you. Yeah, thank you. It's a great pleasure having you guys both on we're taking a quick break and we are coming back with more tech Vibrio. This is Jonathan Kersting. And this is Andre Russo. Learn more about us by going to PGH

Welcome back, everybody. You are making the wisest decision of your Saturday by keeping your dial tune right here to tech via radio. Our podcast machine has been on fire in a good way. It's always in a good way. What's on fire today, though? Well, I tell you what, we have so many stories to tell we can't always fit them all away. And so we take we have our thing called the TechVibe Radio One Mic Stand where if you go to PGH, just dropped down on our podcast, we get these extra conversations we can't always get out on a Saturday. But today, I was so excited about this next door. I was like, man, we got to grab a snippet of it like eight or nine minutes of it to even get a little taste what's going on. If they want to nerd out on the whole thing. They can go right on over to PG right or Yeah, so a company called FLIR, their national international company, but they got a big innovation office here in Pittsburgh just received a $20 million DARPA contract Audrey to get this, they are building new fabrics. And this is basically for the military, for the police that are embedded with catalysts in chemistries that can fight and reduce chemical and biological threats upon contact. So imagine that you've got like, the use for that, like now, you know what I love about all this work? What does it get the reason research is done, then it finds it to use in the in the military. And then from the military, it finds its way into the hands of civilians. And that's what will be so interesting. Where does it go from there, but I'm so thrilled that it's protecting our men and women who serve our contact, and then the idea that it comes down. So maybe one day, we could have a cool jumpsuit. And we could just walk in any environment no matter what hits us. It's gonna be dead on.

Hopefully, we're not walking into any environment that we're worried about what hits us, but it could be there's lots of other ways that it can pretend to.

And that's cool as people will get clever with it. So let's give this podcast a spin hoping our listeners will really enjoy this. I thought it was a lot of fun. And it just goes to show you all the great stuff happening here in Pittsburgh. Let's give it a spin.

Yeah, so FLIR is, by and large. Most people notice that thermal imaging company so there's there's the commercial thermal imaging, and then there's government defense. So when you see aerial surveillance video of helicopter with with seeing somebody running from the police, right, that's the sort of lessons to watch. Yeah. Jump into the woods, right. Yeah, that's what the big company does. But my group is situated in the government defense side, and we're called detection. Okay, we focus on detecting cam bio radiological, nuclear and explosive or CBR, any threats. And so we make sensors. We've got four research sites, one of them here in Pittsburgh is really focused on biotechnology and material science. And so that's the site that I was in charge of, for a long period of time. And so, um, you know, our major focus is on government programs that support the God, Department of Homeland Security, federal, state and local customers. So we do it all. And the most recent effort that we were awarded, as you mentioned, is a DARPA contract for people not familiar with DARPA. They did get they got a shout out in the President's address. They sure did. Some of the work they've done. They were You know, they're they're a defense agency that's got a really big budget that makes investments and you know, what you might call sort of moon shots or, you know, paradigm shifting or or leap ahead technology concepts. And so one example, of course, you know, before the show, we were talking about COVID vaccines and so they funded they're some of the earliest work in the RNA vaccines. Oh, really? Oh, that's interesting. Very cool. Nice. Some of these vaccines now that everybody gets for COVID. Right. So yeah, we're part of a program called personalized, protected bio system. It's kind of, you know, germane or related to actually the whole pandemic, because what DARPA is looking to do is protect warfighters on the chem bio battlefield. And so you can imagine a lot of adversaries that want to use chemical weapons, nasty stuff, dude, this is like stuff that to get outlawed across the world, because it's just how human beings are supposed to behave. And things want to behave that way. And so they're gonna start trying to spray stuff that you got to protect them against.

Yeah, and we've seen, I think, on the last podcast last summer, we talked about some of the stuff we did related to nerve agents in the short history of, you know, just in recent years with the use of those things, right. So it's topical, it's still out there. There's state actors that have weapons programs focused on nerve agents, as we, as we know, from all those headlines, right. So yeah, chemical weapons, biological, obviously, you know, your sort of classical things like anthrax, but also these these emerging threats, right. And particularly, with new technology in CRISPR, where somebody can, you know, almost like a cookbook be making engineered biological threats, right. It sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it? Yeah. nerve aging today, folks. Yeah.

So I mean, that's the that's the concern with all these great, you know, technology advances is that they can also be used for these nefarious reasons, right. So our warfighters are threatened by those things on the battlefield. And the other piece of it that's really important is today's protective gear. Medically, most of the focus is on vaccines. So and that's, that's good for for biological threats. But there are many potential biological threats out there. On a chemical front. They were these really heavy, like suits that have activated carbon in them and they don't breathe and so got sweaty on the battlefield, like, it's like bulky, it's slowing you down and makes you react. So it's really inefficient, it's really hard on them physiologically, and so they can't spend much time in those suits. So if you think about having to carry out a mission and wearing that stuff, right, we're really, not only because of the threat of a chemical or biological attack, but also just the fact that we have to wear that equipment, because we're worried, maybe attacked. So it's a huge burden on the warfighter, right. So what this DARPA program is trying to accomplish is really sort of twofold. There's a element of the program that's focused on actually trying to develop barrier treatments for to prevent chemical agents or biological agents from getting into either your, you know, your pulmonary root or on your skin or in your eyes. And so if you can come up with, you know, sort of creams or other types of materials that maybe can mitigate those things so that you don't get infected or contaminated. And then the other piece is the suit part of it, the material part of it, gloves, masks, actually the fabric that the suits made out of. And that's where we come in, we got that award to lead a pretty large team of collaborators, and we're going to develop sort of that next gen technology that's actually going to be not this extra heavy, burdensome suit that they put on over top of their battle dress uniforms. Our stuffs actually going to be ingrained within the uniform and part of it so that way, you're always wearing it all the time. It's a muted light. It's not this extra layer you're putting on and like it's just like a psychological point to it as well to girls, like all of a sudden you get on this extra gear. It's like whoa, games on right.

Yeah, I mean, the psychological burden and just the fact that even if you're not wearing it, you've got to haul it around with you and you got to take it run with it and then think about the sensor goes off or if you get a notice right from from command that you are going to be attacked well from the time you're exposed to where you can have symptoms, particularly for chemical weapons. You're talking about Two minutes, right? So to have to scramble and put this stuff on, and they've got to keep it on them at all time. So, yeah, we're really excited. We're gonna we're going to be doing a lot of stuff with embedded catalysts that can actually destroy chemical weapons. And this is where I get all excited. So Wow. So like, actually, like as it touches it, there's something in the fabric that will actually destroy that agent. That's that. Yeah, yeah, there's so this is leveraging probably, I mean, at least 15 years of work that we've been doing in research, as well as other partners that have gotten money from other d o t agencies to develop sort of materials, and different kinds of catalysts, some inorganic catalysts, some some biological ones. So enzymes, there's going to be components that have sort of polymer coatings that can kill bacteria and viruses on contact. And basically, if you can kill them before they can get through, and in fact, you are getting like cut or something. Right? Right. Exactly. Exactly.

So, in fact, this is so cool. So all this technology is going to be developed here, basically, in Pittsburgh, what we've got collaborators, we've got a number of universities, as well as government labs that are actually going to test everything for performance. But the main project is being managed in a lot of the testing with chemical agent and biological agent. simulants is actually here in our lab in Pittsburgh. So the, you know, the program is being run out of here. And most of the main integration and testing and generation of the fabric materials is going to go on here. But we're partnered with other small businesses and other academic institutions who are bringing different pieces to the table. So you can take all these best practices, all this knowledge, bring it here in Pittsburgh, and some bulletin companies the solution, what's the timeline to start getting, like, I guess, like proof of concepts and start, like showing the government like, some really cool stuff?

Yeah. So we started, and we got the orange January pretty much started work right away. We've already got stuff being tested with with chemical, actual chemical agents, in laboratories. So there's work going on, we're basically the first year is really kind of testing all the components to figure out which ones work best, okay, and then coming up with a strategy to get them embedded in the fabrics. And then, you know, there's a couple of years of sort of advanced testing. And, you know, by the end of the five years, it's a really aggressive timeline, we were actually going to have a prototype suit. So we're going to work with a with an academic lab that actually collaborates with the DOJ all the time in making uniforms. So we're actually going to have at the end of five years a prototype full suit that they can then evaluate, you know, at the D o t laboratory. So if we, if we hit that, and in five years time, it'll, it'll be a huge success. Too much fun there.

This is why I was so excited. Because when I think about folks that are solving problems like that, and that's happening out in Pittsburgh, I get pretty stoked.

Great, always there's so much to be proud of, and people that are working on these complex issues that are that are changing the world. I mean, these this probably will be in the hands of civilians and not the too distant future. And who knows, who knows how many people's lives can be made better, right?

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