Distributed Energy Resources

Sargent details how Austin Energy continues to embrace innovation

Noting that public power utility Austin Energy’s history of innovation stretches all the way back to the late 1890s, Jackie Sargent, Austin Energy’s general manager, on Nov. 12 detailed how the the utility continues to embrace innovation today on a number of fronts including solar power and energy storage.

Sargent, who made her comments on the first day of the American Public Power Association’s Public Power Forward Summit in Austin, Texas, highlighted Austin Energy’s efforts to expand solar opportunities for low-income customers and detailed how the utility plans to not only invest in electric storage but also to expand its existing base of thermal storage.

The Austin City Council recently approved an update to the utility’s generation resource and climate protection plan.

Through this process, the council has expanded Austin Energy’s goals such that the utility is now looking at a 65 percent renewable offset by 2027 and 900 megawatts of energy efficiency and demand response by 2025 (and evaluating a target of 1,000 MW by 2027).

Also, the utility will need to acquire 950 MW of solar generation, with 200 MW needing to come from the local level and 100 MW needing to be customer sited.

In addition, Austin Energy will invest in 10 MW of electric storage such as batteries and 30 MW of thermal storage “and today we’re actually very well on our way to meeting these goals,” Sargent noted. Austin Energy is currently at 18 MW of its thermal storage goal of 30 MW.

“Austin Energy has been a leader for a long time in renewable energy,” she noted. “As a matter of fact, we actually purchased wind energy from the first wind farm that was located in Texas.”

Austin Energy has a history of innovation

“Success in this complex environment comes from being positioned to cost effectively integrate new technologies,” she said.

“Austin Energy has had a history of innovation,” Sargent said, going all the way back to the late 1890s with the Austin Dam and moonlight towers. “The innovative technologies at the time brought light, power and comfort to our community,” she noted. The Austin Dam included a hydroelectric dam that powered the moonlight towers.

“Building on that strong past and as we look forward, we continue to embrace innovation,” Sargent told the Public Power Forward Summit audience.

Solar power

She pointed out that Austin Energy has had a long history of providing solar incentives. “Not only does it contribute to our environmental goals but is something that our customers have asked us to do and today we have more than seven thousand customers that have solar panels either on their houses or their home rooftops or their businesses,” Sargent said.

A current focus for Austin Energy is to expand the use of this type of renewable energy through community solar. In late 2017, the utility started taking applications for a special program that will help low-income customers buy power from an Austin Energy community solar project at a discounted rate.

“Historically, only those customers who could afford solar and were able to put that infrastructure on their homes were able to go solar,” Sargent noted.

In March, Austin Energy began receiving solar energy from its La Loma Community Solar Farm in East Austin. The project is the largest community solar farm in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the first in Texas to be Green-e certified and to offer low-income customers a discounted rate on community solar.

“We designed La Loma to be a low-income customer friendly project,” Sargent said at the Public Power Forward Summit. “Low-income customers can subscribe to a hundred percent solar energy at a rate that’s slightly less than our power supply.”

Currently, Austin Energy’s community solar projects are fully subscribed, both on the market side and on the low-income side.

Austin SHINES

Sargent also discussed the Austin SHINES project, which refers to a U.S. Department of Energy-funded initiative known as the Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar PV. The Austin Energy SHINES Project was initiated in 2016 with a $4.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and a $1 million grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

(Austin Energy's Cameron Freberg discusses the Austin SHINES solar and storage project)

With Austin SHINES, the utility is testing the integration of solar power with energy storage through multiple customer-sited storage systems at the residential and commercial level, as well as two utility scale systems. All of these battery systems will be controlled through a centralized software management platform that determines when to utilize the stored energy. Through this project, Austin Energy is creating a virtual power plant by integrating distributed energy resources resulting in a cleaner, more dynamic, and more reliable electric grid.

As part of Austin SHINES, a 1.5 MW/3 MWh lithium-ion battery is co-located with the La Loma community solar farm in east Austin and a 1.75 MW/3.2 MWh lithium-ion battery system is being co-located in a neighborhood containing 2 MW of rooftop solar.

“We’re also including a vehicle to grid component,” Sargent noted. “With the electric transportation market continuing to grow, we really want to know how these vehicles can start interacting with the grid.”

She said that the “goal is to optimize the system to support not only reliability, but also to be able to respond to various market price signals to maximize value.”

Through the utility’s work with the  U.S. Department of Energy, “We are going to make the information public that we learn from this project and we will make that data that we have from this available to anyone who is interested,” Sargent said, adding that “We are just starting to get into that data collection phase of the project.”

Sargent, who is a member of the Association’s board of directors, rejoined the Austin Energy team as general manager in August 2016.  

From 2010 to 2012, Sargent served as Senior Vice President of Power Supply and Market Operations at Austin Energy before joining Platte River Power Authority in Fort Collins, Colorado, as General Manager and CEO.

Electric Drive

Another example of Austin Energy’s innovation can be found with the utility’s Electric Drive, which is Austin Energy’s showcase for electric transportation in Austin’s new Seaholm EcoDistrict.

Electric Drive is a mobility hub that features bike sharing, car sharing, access the hike-and-bike trail, and charging options for two- and four wheel EVs. Electric Drive aligns with Austin’s Smart City roadmap. It provides the community with faster, better, cheaper transportation options which helps cut vehicle emissions.

(Austin Energy's Kevin Chandra discusses Electric Drive and his participation in the DEED program)

The transportation hub features DC fast charging, as well as Level 2 charging for customers to use while they explore and enjoy other EcoDistrict shops and recreation, Austin Energy notes in describing Electric Drive.

In addition to EV charging stations, a solar-powered kiosk is also available for charging electric bikes, scooters, motorcycles, mopeds, and handheld devices.

Electric Drive is a key component of Austin Energy’s Plug-In EVerywhere network and demonstrates Austin as a Smart City leader in electric transportation.  Plug-In EVerywhere allows EV drivers to charge at over 500 charging ports throughout Austin — including DC fast charging — for only $4.17 a month.

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