Distributed Energy Resources

Public power transitioning to trusted energy advisor

When it comes to solar energy, residential customers want their utilities to serve as a trusted energy advisor and the public power community can point to specific examples of how its utilities are already having success in this area, panelists said at the American Public Power Association's Public Power Forward summit in November.

The summit, which took place Nov. 17-18 in Arlington, Va., covered a wide range of topics related to APPA's Public Power Forward strategic initiative, which is intended to help public power utilities prepare for a new era in electricity.

One of the sessions at the summit focused on customer perspectives on Public Power Forward. Members of the panel were Janee Briesemeister, an independent consumer advocate and consultant, Michelle Bertolino, electric utility director at California's Roseville Electric, a public power utility, and Alanya Schofield, a senior director at consulting firm E Source.

In her remarks, Schofield noted that through market research, E Source asked residential customers to describe what actions in the area of solar energy that their utility could take that would improve their perception of the utility.

A top priority for residential customers is that they want educational and decision making tools. Customers are interested in solar, but they don't know where to find reliable information on it," she said.

Customers have solar installers "knocking on their door trying to sell them on things and they don't know if they should trust that installer and if what that installer is saying is actually legit," Schofield remarked.

"So they really do want their utility to be providing information, an unbiased resource, being that trusted energy advisor to help them decide -- is solar a good option for them, and if so, how to find a reliable solar installer," she said.

Schofield praised the Sacramento Municipal Utility District's efforts in this area. She said that SMUD has done a great job of working with residential customers to provide information on its website, including a tool that allows customers to plug in their address and see if their roof is well suited to solar.

She said that the California public power utility also has three full-time employees who review solar energy bids that customers receive from installers and then offer feedback to customers.

Roseville Electric's "Trusted Solar Advisor" program

Meanwhile, Roseville Electric's Bertolino highlighted the utility's "Trusted Solar Advisor" program, which she said has become one of the most popular programs that the utility has ever offered.

Under the program, Roseville Electric has staff dedicated on a full-time basis to speaking with customers about solar.

She said that Roseville Electric's experience with this initiative "and thinking about the future, and what does the future look like, we actually came to the conclusion that it's highly likely that in the future we may not be considered a utility anymore."

Roseville Electric would still have the poles and wires "but that would be a small part of our business as it's becoming a smaller part today."

Roseville Electric would become an energy services business under which it would offer advisory services.

If Roseville Electric can gain and maintain the trust of its customers as an advisor, that will position it to be very successful in the future, she said.

Other sessions at the summit addressed, among other things, the future of energy storage, new forces changing the business landscape, and using technology and rate design to meet customer expectations.