51st State goes live with new visions for energy system change | SEPA Skip to content

51st State goes live with new visions for energy system change

By K Kaufmann


The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) launched its 51st State Initiative last year as a broad challenge to re-imagine a 21st-century energy system from the ground up, as if for a hypothetical 51st state that has no rules, regulations or market structures in place.

But implicit in that challenge was a still greater one. In creating new visions of an energy system that is reliable, affordable, meets the needs of all stakeholders and supports a robust market for solar and other distributed energy resources, would groups and individuals be able to think beyond their own frames of reference?

Final 51st State3

Readers will now be able to judge for themselves as, beginning Friday, March 27, all the concept papers SEPA received by its Feb. 27 deadline will be posted on the 51st State website, www.SEPA51.com.  While 40 groups and individuals originally expressed interest in developing papers for the initiative, in the end only 12 submitted papers that met the basic 51st State guidelines.

Read the 51st State guidelines here.

What is exciting about these papers and their authors is the broad and diverse range of perspectives and ideas they represent, which is exactly what SEPA hoped the 51st State Initative would attract. The list of papers at the end of this post come from industry groups, universities, financial and clean tech consultants and think tanks.

Some see a 51st state with strong, ongoing roles for existing regulatory bodies and utilities — investor-owned, public and electric cooperatives. Others imagine an energy market in which utilities’ roles change dramatically and consumers contract for energy services, using dynamic distribution grids that allow power to be generated, stored, bought and sold locally.

Still other papers focus more on the core values and concepts that should underlie the 51st state’s energy sector, rather than specific technologies or market and regulatory structures.

These 12 concept papers are now being evaluated by our five-member Innovation Review Panel, which includes some of the top thought leaders in the energy and utility sectors. The independent panel’s task is to choose three to five papers for further discussion and exploration.

Read full bios of the Innovation Review Panel here.

SEPA will unveil the panel’s choices at the 51st State Summit planned for April 26-27 in San Diego — an event that will bring together members of the review panel, the authors of the chosen papers and top utility and energy industry leaders. While the summit is by invitation only, that doesn’t mean we want to limit discussion of the thoughts and ideas we have received.

One of the reasons we are posting all the concept papers is to kick off what we hope will be a second, more expansive crowdsourcing effort to gather comments and feedback on the papers. Tell us what you like, what you don’t like and what might be done differently or better.

We want a broad range of feedback and creative brainstorming that can also be incorporated into the public discussions and forums on the 51st State that SEPA will sponsor in the coming months.

After the 51st State Summit, SEPA’s Utility Solar Conference, April 27-29. Find out more here.

Public input will also be vital as we move toward Phase 2 of the 51st State Initiative, which will focus on developing practical road maps to help utilities and policy makers turn some of the top ideas from these papers into real changes in the energy sector.

We will screen comments to ensure none contain attacks on specific individuals or organizations or outright product or company promotions. Beyond that, we encourage thoughtful, challenging responses that will push these ideas and our discussions of them to new levels and audiences.

The following list contains a rundown, in alphabetical order, of the groups and individuals that submitted papers and very brief descriptions of their main ideas.

American Public Power Association (APPA): Retains basic regulatory and utility structures — and a strong role for public power utilities — but adds a 51st state “overlay” that adapts to the changing energy landscape. As customer-sited distributed energy alters the utility-consumer relationship, new contract terms, interconnection rules and pricing will be needed.

America’s Power Plan/Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC: Asks whether energy distribution in the 51st state will be a “natural monopoly” and calls for rate designs based on outcomes “consumers value most: reliable, affordable, and clean energy services.”

Arizona Public Service (APS): Sees the vertically integrated utility and state regulatory structures “transitioning” into the 51st state, with a more active, customer-focused approach to solar and other distributed generation. “The utility will work diligently with its consumers and regulatory body to ensure approval for the best resources.”

Clean Power Finance and Stoel Rives: In the 51st state of Welhuton, the central question for the energy sector is “What is best for end customers?” Answers focus on a “transactive energy model” in which utilities still operate and maintain transmission and distribution grids, but consumers choose energy service providers and technologies.

Graceful Systems: The energy sector the 51st State of “Fertile Ground” is based on five core ideas: Community authority and responsibility for energy infrastructure; tight limits on monopoly utilities; regulations ensuring the safety of and access to monopoly utilities’ resources; energy service contracts between energy users and providers; outcome-based policies.

Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR): Envisions the 51st state as an “energy democracy” built on the technological and economic potential of distributed renewables. Utilities facilitate a networked energy system; consumers contract with each other, utilities or third parties for energy services; regulators become market managers.

Michael Jochum and Ankit Saraf: Imagine a world in which installing rooftop solar panels is as easy as installing any other appliance, and the grid is “robust, decentralized, fair, and technologically seamless.” Reaching these goals will require pricing that accurately conveys the true value of power, as well as policies that create a level playing field for all power generators.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA): Sees a 51st state in which the goal is ensuring the best mix of energy resources, rather than promoting specific technologies or policies, and a “load-serving entities,” such as electric cooperatives, optimize system benefits for all consumers.

North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center and Pace Law School Energy and Climate Center: Builds on “shared economy” businesses such as Uber and Airbnb to propose a “shared utility” model. This sharing utility would use third-party partners to manage electricity loads using all distributed resources and technologies at its disposal, drawing on wholesale resources only when all distributed resource options are exhausted.

Strategic Utility Management: Envisions a 51st state 25 years after three major “tweaks” to the existing system result in an energy system with 80-percent renewables. The tweaks are smart pricing signals — such as straight fixed variable and time of use rates — virtual private networks on the grid and a level environmental playing field.

James A. White: Sees a 51st state run entirely on solar power, with individual power producers connected via a regional distribution system and “energy banks” that use an array of storage technologies to turn intermittent power into a reliable energy supply. Free market relations between all stakeholders deliver clean, reliable power at competitive rates.

Wisconsin Energy Institute: Proposes a 51st state with a dynamic distribution system that allows for “integration of thousands of distributed energy resources.” The system connects central and local electricity generation with a marketplace enabling energy transactions, such as payments between buyers and sellers of energy at the local distribution level.

K Kaufmann is SEPA’s communications manager. She can be reached at [email protected].