Energy Efficiency

Public power forward: future focus

Last week, Senator Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and co-sponsor of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, convened a meeting with Bill Gates to discuss the importance of energy innovation. Sen. Murkowski noted that "Mr. Gates has both the stature and the vision to explain why energy innovation must be more of a national priority..." She added, "I've seen the value of innovation throughout Alaska — where new energy systems are cutting energy costs, providing more reliable power, and improving the lives of our people."

We in the public power community couldn't agree more with Senator Murkowski's views on the value and importance of innovation. And today, a group of public power leaders and visionaries are gathering near the nation's capital to preview the future and discuss how they can continue to improve the communities they serve. They are at the American Public Power Association's first-ever Public Power Forward Summit.

Public Power Forward is an umbrella term that APPA has coined for the new and evolving energy technologies — distributed generation, energy storage, demand response, and innovative energy efficiency techniques — that public power utilities must be responsive to.

The summit is intended to kick off the implementation of a key initiative under APPA's 3-year strategic plan. The initiative, also labeled Public Power Forward, will help our members understand and deal with the rapid changes in energy technology, customer preferences, utility business models. We will explore what's on the horizon, hear from various industry experts and stakeholders, and gauge member needs.

I for one am looking forward to this future because I believe that public power has a distinct advantage. Our track record of being nimble, responsive, and innovative will serve us well. Our motive is only to serve our customer-owners and not shareholders. This means we are willing to invest in innovation. In fact, as I was looking at recent issues of APPA newsletters and Public Power magazine, I was impressed with the high volume of reports detailing how our member utilities are engaged in a number of innovative projects. And I wanted to share these seven examples of how public power utilities, in many ways, are already IN the future and defining a new era in electricity.

Early drivers of community solar

Seattle City Light in Washington championed the idea of community solar well before most had heard of it, and has created four community solar projects with more than 1,300 participants. Seattle City Light traces its community solar program to 2008 when Seattle was designated by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of 25 Solar America Cities. The city formed the Emerald City Solar Initiative, a team of experts in renewable energy, project development, policy, advocacy and public outreach. Among other things, the group helped push forward legislation that allowed community solar to receive a production incentive. Seattle's community solar program works in a fairly straightforward way. The utility pays the upfront cost to build and maintain a solar array, which feeds into the electric grid. Community members buy shares in the output for $150 each. Customers in turn are paid back for the investment through state and utility production credits that run through 2020.Ownership will be transferred in 2020 to the customers, who are able to take advantage of the stable-priced solar electricity. The low share cost of entry allows a broad segment of customers to participate, not just those with disposable income.

Pioneers in utility-scale energy storage

The Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Washington, is embarking on a novel energy storage project — the first-ever built using the Modular Energy Storage Architecture — to improve reliability and better integrate renewable energy sources. The project includes two large-scale lithium-ion batteries at a substation site, each rated at 1 average-megawatt. The first of these giant batteries — housed in a modified shipping container — has been installed. Later in 2015, a second project will be added that will use advanced vanadium flow battery technology and be rated at 2.2 average-megawatts. The project, made possible in part by a $7.3 million investment from the Washington Clean Energy Fund, is the first of several MESA energy storage projects the Washington utility is pursuing this year. The U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is working with participants to develop use cases, or detailed descriptions of the many ways energy storage can increase renewable energy use and improve grid efficiency and resiliency. Standards-based products make it easier and less expensive for utilities to control and optimize energy storage and integrate renewable power sources with the grid.

Home energy storage to reduce peak demand

The Glasgow Electric Plant Board and Sunverge Energy are partnering to provide home battery storage to 165 municipal electric customers in Glasgow, Kentucky. Glasgow EPB, which serves more than 7,000 customers, is providing the storage solution to reduce emissions and peak demand, which will also save customers on electricity bills. The batteries will capture power from the grid when prices and demand are lowest and deploy it when prices and demand are highest, to reduce the burden on generating stations during peak times. It also eases the financial burden on customers by allowing them to get power at a lower price. The batteries may also provide back-up power during outages. While residential energy storage is often marketed in tandem with solar power, such as the Tesla Powerwall, this is the first time that Sunverge has offered a storage-only solution for a customer. The batteries are managed by a cloud-based service. Combined with information from grid operators, Glasgow EPB can deliver power from the batteries to the grid as if from a single, utility-scale virtual power plant.

Change in utility-customer relationships

A National Public Radio feature described Fort Collins' government-run utility as a "model for the potential utility of the future." In 2012, the utility installed nearly 70,000 smart meters, at a cost of $36 million, funded by a grant from the Federal Recovery Act. Now, both customers and the utility can see their energy use in 15-minute increments. Before this they could only see energy use once a month. The data these smart meters supply provides the foundation Fort Collins needs to reduce energy use. Local elected leaders set a goal for the city to be carbon neutral by 2050. Fort Collins is helping residents use less energy, and to get that energy from many more places — community solar gardens, rooftop solar, and wind power. "Customers will buy and sell electricity on the grid, zapping energy back and forth from their solar panels, or stored in their electric cars," a utility spokesperson told NPR. Customers can also borrow from Fort Collins Utilities to pay for energy efficiency or renewable projects. They'll make payments right on their monthly utility bill, and save money from the efficiencies installed. Fort Collins is the first utility in the county to offer such loans for up to 20 years.

Integration of storage, solar and electric vehicles

North Carolina State University uses infographics to educate the public about the benefits of the university's Vehicle Energy Storage & Solar Demonstration project, which couples a solar-powered electric vehicle charging station with an energy storage system. The project was partly funded by a grant from the American Public Power Association's research and demonstration program, DEED. The integrated system built by the university generates up to 43 kilowatt hours of solar photovoltaics, charges two electric vehicles, stores up to 20 kilowatt hours of power in a battery, connects to a local microgrid, and educates the public about intelligent energy management through a visual energy display. The VESSD achieves operational efficiency by using direct current from a microgrid and avoiding losses that occur when a grid-supplied alternating current is converted into direct current. The project helps to demonstrate how small-scale distributed generation systems, energy storage, and electric vehicles can be intelligently integrated and controlled to avoid deleterious grid impacts.

Wind power storage

Lincoln Electric System in Nebraska has designed an efficient system that uses excess wind energy to store compressed air and provide power when winds die down or when peak energy use is highest. The system was designed with partial funding from the American Public Power Association's research and demonstration program, DEED. The system has a dual function air compressor and motor directly connected to the wind turbine shaft, which uses excess wind energy to store compressed air. When the wind speed is low, the compressed air supplements the wind energy and allows the wind turbine to produce energy at its maximum potential. Along with an increase in self-sufficiency, this technology could enable utilities to downsize transmission lines or maintain the size when power demand in the community increases. Compressed air energy storage also works well in rural areas where abundant wind energy resources exist and small communities are located far from the generation center. If this technology can be commercialized, it will allow for storage of off-peak wind energy for delivery during peak periods.

Outage ready with microgrids

Several public power communities in New York State have received funding of approximately $100,000 each for microgrid development activities. The awards were granted to support a new generation of community-based power under New York's "Reforming the Energy Vision" initiative. The communities will study the feasibility of installing a community microgrid that can operate independently of the main grid in the event of a power outage. For example, Greenport Municipal Utilities serves nearly 2,000 customers and has its own oil-fired 6.8 MW power plant. Greenport lost power during Hurricane Irene, had substantial outages after Hurricane Sandy and has had periodic non-storm related outages. Its proposed microgrid would include a new liquefied natural gas fueled generator, as well as a combination of existing and proposed wind, solar, and energy storage resources that would provide power to the local hospital, fire department, and a regional wastewater treatment plant. Other public power communities in New York are exploring microgrids for similar reasons.

Some of you may not have been able to make it to the Public Power Forward Summit but I know your utility is probably doing exceptional work as well. I'd love to hear about your innovative ventures. And also about your hopes and concerns for the future. Email me or tweet your ideas using @JoeNipper @PublicPowerOrg #PublicPowerForward.