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The stories we aren’t telling: Focus on net metering misses the bigger picture

Net metering is a topic that has, for the past several years, created fierce divisions in the electric power industry, while also providing mainstream and some business media with an easy, adversarial narrative — utilities versus solar.

As I write this, newspapers in Maine and South Carolina are carrying stories about legislative defeats for solar advocates. Both situations involved bills related to net metering; that is, how utility customers with rooftop solar should be compensated for the excess power they feed onto the grid.

Meanwhile, in less than two weeks, I and many of my colleagues at the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) will be in Rancho Mirage, California — a few miles from Palm Springs — for our annual Utility Conference. It is one of our most important events because — with no reporters present — it allows utility executives to talk frankly about the issues and trends they see as critical to their business and their customers.

SEPA’s 2017 Utility Conference in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by http://www.MomentaCreative.com)

They will not, however, be talking a whole lot about net metering, Rather, this year’s agenda focuses primarily on the integration, aggregation, valuation and management of distributed energy resources (DERs) — including solar, storage, electric vehicles and other smart energy technologies. Conference sessions will also look at creating green power programs for commercial and industrial customers, and ensuring the industry’s transition to a clean energy economy benefits all customers and the grid.

Net metering is mentioned in one workshop description, but in the larger context of rate reform.

This focus on DERs reflects a pivotal moment in the U.S. energy transition. The disruption of utility business models triggered by rooftop solar was only a first step in the change from a centralized to a distributed system. We are now moving toward a system where distributed technologies can and must be leveraged not only for their customer benefits, but for their value as grid assets as well.

The catch here is that you cannot change one part of a system without, eventually, affecting the whole — and we are only beginning to glimpse the depth and scope of the evolution that will continue to unfold in our industry.

You cannot change the technology of energy generation without also changing the distribution and transmission systems. You cannot change utility business models without, eventually, also changing rate design and the business models of other clean energy technology developers.

Net metering is part of that larger, more complicated discussion. But it is a part that can be reduced to simple terms, directly impacting individual people and their electricity bills, which may be, to some extent, why it remains such an emotional, hard-fought issue.

What I love about the Utility Conference is its relative intimacy. I get to meet people and hear stories about what’s happening on the ground — what is and isn’t working — and all the cool stuff that often flies under the radar of the mainstream and industry media.

For example, besides not talking too much about net metering, we will be announcing the Top 10 lists of utilities that added the most new solar and new storage to the grid last year. Maintaining the utilities-versus-solar narrative gets a bit tenuous when SEPA’s annual Utility Survey shows that utilities across the U.S., large and small, connected nearly 300,000 new systems, totaling close to 8 gigawatts.

One of this year’s winning utilities got interested in solar after talking with one of our past winners. Located in a state not known as a big solar market, this year’s winner can now, on a clear, sunny day, run 100-percent off its solar field. And it is planning to add storage to the project, which will allow it to provide grid support services to its wholesale market operator.

The point here is not to oversimplify or generalize the role of utilities, solar or any other stakeholder in the energy transition, but rather to recognize the complexities they all face.

From colonial times to present day, the U.S. energy system has been built on successive transitions. The historical record clearly documents that such transitions are, by their very nature, messy, uncomfortable and confusing for all involved. On the upside, they also create a lot of room for experimentation, innovation and cross industry collaboration.

It is an incredibly compelling story, of vital importance, and we need to tell it all.

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