Distributed Energy Resources

A postcard from the public power future

In May 2014, I participated in a panel discussion at the annual National Town Meeting on Demand Response and Smart Grid, organized by the Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid. The message from my fellow panelists was clear — they see us trending away from a command-and-control grid to a more consumer-centric grid, with the role of utilities changing.

Utilities are going to need to provide customers with the choices that they want, pointed out Lorraine Akiba, a commissioner with the Hawaii Public Service Commission. Akiba said that in Hawaii now, "there is more demand response, more generation closer to the load, and more customer engagement. I like to think we're writing the rest of the world a postcard from the future."

What would a postcard from public power's future look like? I suspect our postcard would feature an "all-of-the-above" montage — central station base load and peaking generation units, wind and solar facilities, transmission and distribution lines, behind the meter community-level generation, small hydro, solar rooftop panels, energy efficiency measures, and even storage facilities — and, I hope, happy customers.

How do we create this postcard? By being flexible and responsive to changing customer needs; by focusing on energy efficiency, innovation, and reliability; by rethinking our business methods, customer offerings, and rate structures; and by looking on both sides of the meter.

With the slate of new and forthcoming regulations — including the Environmental Protection Agency's recent proposed regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing and modified fossil-fueled power plants — we know it's increasingly important to diversify and modernize.

Efficiency and diversity are facilitated by major technological advances at the edges of the distribution grid where utilities interconnect with customers. More customers are interested in self-generation and reducing use of electricity through new technologies like solar panels, batteries, and smartphone-based monitors.

We're used to being the exclusive power providers to our retail customers, but, in the future, we may find many of them want to supply at least part of their own power. We need to understand how this will operationally and financially impact us, and we need to work with our customers to find ways to accommodate, and even anticipate, their desires.

As public power utilities, we have an advantage in writing our postcard from the future. We have clarity of mission, more flexibility in our operations and rate setting, and no divided loyalties — our commitment is to our customers first.

I recently attended a meeting of the Distributed Energy and Efficiency Technology group — a staff working group that coordinates the multiple distributed energy resources initiatives APPA is engaged in. I was impressed with the range of what our staff experts are doing for member utilities.

APPA's Energy Efficiency Resource Central online database features more than 500 energy efficiency, renewable, and demand response programs offered by public power utilities — searchable by type of program, state and size of utility. We are advancing energy efficiency legislation on Capitol Hill. We conduct an Energy Efficiency Management Certificate program for staff of public power utilities. And we're working on a distributed generation toolkit for members with advocacy, operations, and communications resources.

In addition, our Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments research program, or DEED, has a plethora of innovative pilot programs ready to be taken to scale at public power utilities. Most recently, Lincoln Electric System in Nebraska developed an interactive gaming platform to educate customers on energy efficiency. LES is also evaluating a system where surplus wind can be stored in the form of compressed air and released to generate power when wind is deficient. Marietta Power used a DEED grant to develop a cost-effective, non-intrusive load monitoring system to provide electricity bills with more information to residential customers so they can improve their energy savings. Logan City Light & Power in Utah is conducting a carbon dioxide-based geothermal feasibility study for a utility-scale energy plant. These are just a few examples.

If you're not already involved in our DEED research program, I urge you to join. The deadline for the next round of grant applications is August 15.

I know that many of our member utilities are already doing a lot to leverage these changes at the edge of your distribution systems. I would like to hear about your efforts — please comment on my blog . I look forward to seeing your postcard from the future."