On January 17, SMUD and Clean Power Research announced the launch of a software as a service, called WattPlan Grid, that can help utilities to forecast the adoption of distributed energy resource (DER) technologies and how those technologies might impact utility operations and revenue. SMUD also plans to use the forecasting software.
Patrick McCoy, strategic solar business planner at SMUD, noted that increased customer adoption of DERs will force utilities to start thinking in a more integrated process. Specifically, understanding how customer adoption of one DER technology might affect the likelihood that those customers purchase other related technologies. Or, the utility might want to see how a rebate or pricing incentive impacts load or costs over time.
“WattPlan Grid will help us determine how best to maximize the benefits of DER investments in our community,” said SMUD Chief Grid Strategy and Operations Officer Paul Lau in a press release announcing the launch. “The ability to forecast customer DER adoption quickly using consistent and accurate methods through a variety of planning scenarios allows us to more effectively plan for and manage our grid over the long term, and that helps us continue to deliver affordable, reliable electricity to our residential and business customers.”
McCoy shared how SMUD will be using the software to predict how many customers will have rooftop solar, which in turn will help the utility to determine the likely demand for expanding its community solar program.
“Right now, it’s predominantly focused on PV, but as we move forward with other initiatives, such as comparing with other DER technologies, these are going to be increasingly complex but very critical questions to ask ourselves,” said McCoy.
McCoy also hopes the ability to do more accurate forecasts will lead to more informed discussions with policy makers or to help the community-owned utility plan more effective programs, particularly for underserved or disadvantaged communities.
“As we start to run scenarios, I’m going to be interested to see what the policy questions are that we can pose back to our policymakers or local jurisdictions,” said McCoy. “Going to them with actual data and information and … providing them with our perspective on the implications of the policies they have already promulgated, or making recommendations to them about new policies that could be implemented.”
McCoy shared how SMUD is looking at how it might work toward a zero carbon future, which has brought up many questions about how such a move would impact different aspects of its operations. “This goes beyond just decarbonizing our energy supply. How much building electrification do we need to pursue? How far and deep do we need to go with electrified transportation?” shared McCoy. “Being able to run those scenarios will help us understand how that impacts or changes the load shape. And ultimately, resulting in the key question, which is what are the costs and benefits with pursuing a zero carbon policy?”
McCoy noted that in-depth integrated planning processes, that look at a variety of factors from distribution planning to circuit-level load shapes, could take many months to arrive at a similar set of forecasts.
“Right now, we’re targeting being able to run adoption forecast scenarios on the scale of hours and days,” said Gavin Novotny, technical project manager at Clean Power Research. “[This] would allow a much wider range or much greater number of scenarios to be run. And not by a third party, but SMUD then has the control to run the scenarios themselves.”
Although the software was developed in close coordination with SMUD, a public power utility, Novotny said that all utilities – including investor-owned, vertically-integrated, and transmission and distribution utilities – have a need for this type of planning, and that Clean Power Research has not narrowed the scope of the service of the software to any particular type of utility.
Both McCoy and Novotny mentioned how this forecasting is also about finding value in the data utilities have. Novotny mentioned the importance of utilities in not only collecting information about solar customers, but also in having ways to engage those customers as part of a feedback loop as a solid first step of the forecasting process.
“SMUD has positioned themselves well to start gathering that information and have the information that’s necessary to be able to produce good forecasts,” said Novotny.
“SMUD brings the vision of a really innovative utility. It really helps to have a utility that has thought about how they want to integrate this type of process into their organization, how this information will be used by many different personnel within the organization,” said Novotny. “That really guides the development for this tool and shapes how we build it so we’re ready for other utilities once they get to that point.”
Working with Clean Power Research to offer this software as a service is part of SMUD’s strategy to develop new business lines to generate other revenue. In the past year, the public power utility has also announced plans to offer services to a community choice aggregation agency in California and consulting services to utilities in Japan.