Powering Strong Communities

R&D Are the Gateway to Utility Technology Changes

The world of electricity is experiencing changes in rate design, our generation capacity mix, energy delivery, grid architecture, and so much more. These developments are altering the way the public views electric utilities and the way utilities interact with their customers.

These changes are not possible without new technologies and new approaches. Research and development are the gateway to change and adaptation, and public power utilities are at the forefront of innovation.

To support public power R&D, for over 40 years the American Public Power Association has managed the Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments, or DEED, program. Made possible by APPA members that join the program, DEED has funded nearly $22 million in grants and an additional $2 million in internships and scholarships since its inception. This funding has not only aided public power utilities in carrying out their own projects but has benefited all those who have been able to apply the lessons learned from grant recipients and to their own utilities.

Over the years, hundreds of public power utilities have engaged in exploring cutting-edge technologies that have now become proven and well-established. For example, one of the first DEED grants went to Nashville Electric Service in 1980 for a co-generation energy-recovery facility, which burned municipal solid waste and converted the energy to steam and electricity. This facility provided the local government with an “economically and technically feasible solution to the solid waste disposal problems of the community.” This was a first-of-its-kind demonstration of a technology that is now widely in use.

Today, dozens of public power utilities are engaged in projects that will pave the way for adoption of technology for our future and enhance the reliability and resiliency of the grid. For example, several projects are looking at electric vehicle adoption strategies, charging infrastructure, customer engagement, and other aspects of support for EVs. The Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, through a DEED grant, recently developed an Electric Vehicle Planning Toolkit, which can help utilities interested in supporting EV adoption to streamline planning and implementation activities. The Northern California Power Agency and Douglas County Public Utility District have begun research around hydrogen generation. Chelan County Public Utility District used a DEED grant for an energy storage project that enabled it to expand its hydropower resources and to meet peak demand growth. Other projects are investigating applications for technologies related to energy storage, renewable generation, and grid hardening.

R&D are not limited to adapting new technologies — they also incorporate workforce and community involvement. Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California is working on a pilot program to pair youth with mentors to help develop tools and skills necessary for clean economy careers. WPPI Energy in Wisconsin used an internship to help raise awareness about its energy assistance and other programs to community members with lower income. DEED-funded interns and scholarship recipients have also helped public power utilities in their research. For example, an intern assisted Austin Utilities in Texas in researching its SHINE program, which integrates solar photovoltaics and energy storage in a low-cost manner for its customers.

Energy R&D new and old spread well beyond public power and DEED. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes more than $21 billion for energy R&D, effectively supporting demonstration and deployment of a host of new energy technologies and applications, such as hydrogen, advanced nuclear, and carbon capture. Across the broader industry, organizations such as the Electric Power Research Institute are dedicated to R&D. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, EPRI has led initiatives related to efficient electrification and artificial intelligence. Its latest initiative, Climate READi, is a collaborative approach to strengthening the grid to make it more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

Together, these R&D efforts are fostering new technologies and new ways of thinking about the customer-utility relationship. The world of tomorrow is being shaped by activities taking place today at utilities of every type and size in the U.S. and throughout the world. It takes significant investment and time to make a new technology viable, and we’re glad to support public power in being part of this R&D picture, building on our rich history of innovation and continuing to lead through current disruption.