A spark in the electric world is often something to be avoided, except when it comes to sparking innovative ideas or practices. Yet there can still be a hesitancy to move forward or try out an idea, technology, or process just because there hasn’t been much history of its application by utilities. In working with other groups — and each other — public power providers gain insight into how to evolve their operations along with technology and customer expectations and find efficiencies along the way.
Leveraging Joint Action
Electric resistance heaters are typically an inexpensive option for upfront costs, but quickly become among the most expensive options for space heating once in operation. This is due in part to a reduced ability to control the energy usage of resistance heaters, which are often installed in older homes. This premise is what led WPPI Energy, a joint action agency representing public power utilities in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Upper Michigan, to investigate whether deploying line voltage smart thermostats could help customers save energy during the winter.
Undertaking such a project could not be done by the JAA alone, but required involving partners along multiple levels.
“WPPI Energy is a member-led joint action agency, so the public power utilities that make up our membership play a large role in any project we take on,” said Anna Stieve, senior energy services manager at WPPI. “Their buy-in was instrumental to the success of the project. Tackling high winter utility bills, especially for low-income households, was an easy goal for such customer-focused utilities to agree on.”
Seventeen utilities signed up to participate, and in turn more than 880 thermostats were installed. Participating customers were able to save an average of 614 kilowatts per thermostat installed — around $70 per year per thermostat. Stieve credits strong communication and having a clear, common goal for the successful collaboration.
“We saw a lot of unique and symbiotic relationships while working on this project,” noted Stieve. “WPPI member utilities have strong relationships with the landlords in their communities.”
In addition to members, WPPI’s energy services managers, and customers, Stieve said that WPPI worked closely with staff at Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s statewide energy efficiency and renewable energy program.
Having these strong relationships built on trust helped encourage participation in the program. “Some landlords really bought into the program and wanted to help their tenants save money. We witnessed landlords who worked to install the technology in entire apartment complexes,” said Stieve.
“Our member utilities also have their own relationships with their customers, who include the people residing in apartment buildings.” These relationships helped support marketing the program directly to customers with electric heat. Each member is supported by a dedicated energy services manager, who helped market the project to customers in addition to providing support such as answering customer questions, setting up appointments with contractors, and gathering data.
Given the wide area covered by participating utilities, WPPI engaged with a variety of local contractors to install the LVSTs. “We found it was simpler to hire contractors who supported the technology to do the install for multiple communities. Being able to find and hire great contractors to work among various member communities was another unanticipated benefit of utilities working together,” said Stieve.
This program was a different experience for WPPI and its members, as it featured a coordinated approach to the direct installation of an emerging technology for residential customers. The project was funded in part through the Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments, or DEED, program at the American Public Power Association. Although this type of program is atypical for the JAA, the team sees how joint action can be suited to take on these projects.
“WPPI is well situated to help members carry out projects of this scale. Joint action agencies have the distinct advantage of bringing together member utilities of various sizes and populations to share information and make programs like this one a success,” shared Stieve. “Our members are stronger together, and, through joint action, they’re able to offer more high quality, cost-effective services to the communities they serve.”
In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District saw the opportunity to develop a solar plus storage facility to support its 2030 Zero Carbon goal, while also supporting its agricultural community. The Country Acres project is a 344-MW solar array plus a 172 MW, 4-hour battery storage system. The project also includes construction and operation of interconnection facilities, including a generation substation, switching station, and interconnection lines.
The project represents not only the largest solar facility SMUD will have developed to date, but also its first foray into agrivoltaics, which involves combining land use for both solar photovoltaics and for farming. The project will be located outside of Sacramento in Placer County, west of the City of Roseville.
“This is an area that has a lot of agriculture, so we want projects to be compatible with that,” said
Amanda Beck, a project development manager for SMUD. Beck mentioned that SMUD has established guidelines for renewable projects that have been in place for years, which outlines criteria for how to make projects compatible with the community. “We knew we would be looking at use of agricultural land. So, as we were looking at the site and those principles, we looked at how we can partner to further innovate.”
SMUD previously worked with researchers at the University of California at Davis to support a pollinator habitat on its renewable projects, specifically at its Rancho Seco II facility. Beck said this history led to the partnership with UC Davis for the agrivoltaic research at Country Acres. The UC Davis team will develop crops and study crop production on about 10 acres of the up to 1,170-acre site.
“As we were developing the project … we were able to identify a location that made sense with others’ needs in mind, such as having good access to water and other needs,” noted Beck.
In addition to the partnership with UC Davis, SMUD also engaged a partner to manage the sale of energy generated from the panels under a power purchase agreement. While SMUD is the developer on the project, handling the permitting and siting aspects, the PPA partner will construct and operate the panels and storage assets. “They will own the renewable facility and will operate it, and then underneath, SMUD will own the property, and in the middle, UC Davis will own the crops and do the research on them,” explained Beck.
The project is still in the permitting process, but SMUD has signed contracts with both UC Davis and the PPA partner to execute aspects of the project. Eric Crane, who works on regional and local government affairs for SMUD, has also been part of helping move the Country Acres project forward.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for SMUD because this pilot is going to inform future projects [in agrivoltaics],” said Crane. He said the panels will be constructed at various heights, so the UC Davis team can measure the efficacy of producing different crops, while the SMUD team can see how this affects generation. Part of getting the project off the ground was to gain the support of the local agricultural community. “We had a presentation at the Placer County Agricultural Commission, where we went through the process of what agrivoltaics are, and some of the commissioners were very excited. The potential of creating microclimates under the panels that could extend the growing season by a month or two was something that really resonated with individuals that might have been hesitant to have solar going onto ag land.”
Crane noted that SMUD has had a few thousand customers in Placer County for years, and that this project helped spur efforts to better connect with stakeholders there. He pointed out the clear mutual benefits of the project, from the potential for new jobs to higher reliability for customers served.
In terms of what makes for a successful collaboration, Beck credited constant communication. “We’ve never stopped talking — it feels like for two years now.”
“Our workflow always includes a lot of stakeholders,” she added. “We want to be collaborative, we want to be part of the communities that we develop in. So very early on, the team worked to understand and establish a presence in our community, to understand those stakeholders, to have meetings — not just with the decision-makers, but all the community members that wanted to talk to us. That’s key to how we work. It’s a lot — a lot of groups, a lot of meetings, but in the end, it helps to inform how we design and develop the project.”
Starting with a Shared Vision
In Washington state, Tacoma Power has been part of ongoing discussions with other utilities and energy groups throughout the Pacific Northwest on how to address common challenges in the sector, with a particular focus on conservation and efficiency. Through interactions with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, the Bonneville Power Administration's energy efficiency group, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Regional Technical Forum, Tacoma Power has had plenty of opportunity to understand the different technology options available and what utilities can do to help address issues with adoption or within the marketplace. According to Alan Fraser, customer energy programs engineering team manager at Tacoma Power, it was from a colleague’s discussions with peers in these organizations that Tacoma Power moved forward its projects on increasing customer adoption of central heat pump water heating systems.
In part through funding from DEED grants and grants from the Bonneville Power Administration, Tacoma took on two initiatives that focused on installing centralized heat pump water heaters in commercial and multifamily buildings. The projects involved bringing together builders to install the heaters, the water heater developers, designers, and engineers. One project involved the Tacoma Housing Authority to focus on deploying the water heaters at buildings that will house individuals with lower incomes. The BPA is participating to help pay for measurement and verification of how the heaters are working – and supporting efficiency – after a year of use.
“Part of why it worked and why it worked well is that there are already a number of groups where we talk about conservation and efficiency,” said Fraser. "They had time to discuss these ideas for a while before the grant opportunity came along,” he said.
Fraser said that while there was interest in the idea from other groups, being able to bring grants and incentive funding to the table helped lower the perceived risk for builders to participate, in addition to reducing the incremental cost for the project.
Fraser said it was helpful to just start the dialogue to understand each other’s points of view. “We want energy efficiency, they don’t want calls about cold water,” he said.
These slightly differing views did result in some changes throughout the design phase, including changing some specifications that might not be the most energy efficient options. The technology is new enough the designer and owner wanted to include a back-up plan. "I'm optimistic the measurement and verification assessment will help provide an operational guide for all parties to meet their objectives," said Fraser.
From there, Fraser noted how regular check-ins with the various stakeholders allowed for clarity on “who is doing what and by when.”
Fraser said a key takeaway from the projects so far is around needing more information and examples to point to so that everyone can see how it works and be more comfortable with the technology. The buildings are slated to be completed in 2024.
“The person paying the bill isn’t the same as the one doing the building. It was new enough to the parties that they both wanted a backup plan.”
Fraser said the data and case studies will help all partners continue to learn from the technology, and that Tacoma Power anticipates needing further insight into how to leverage design of such systems to handle new loads given trends in electrification.