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NARUC Conference Coverage and the Need to Change the Media Narrative on Energy

This article is being written two weeks after the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) wrapped up its 128th Annual Meeting in La Quinta, California — so the main stories and story lines about the event have already been laid out in the energy industry press.

Story line 1:

No, the regulators did not spend an undue amount of time trying to figure out what the election victory of Donald Trump might mean for their work. The election results, and Trump in particular, were more subtext than a central concern. You could feel it in the immediate, almost universal assumption that President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan would soon be a nonissue, and a particularly feisty vibe buzzing through some of the sessions related to natural gas.

Story line 2:

The main narrative emerging from the conference was, instead, focused on NARUC’s new Distributed Energy Resources Rate Design and Compensation Manual — the result of a massive, year-long effort that included input from a wide range of industry stakeholders. The manual provides a balanced approach to the complexities of how distributed technologies — such as solar, storage, and electric vehicles — are driving unstoppable changes in the grid, utility business models and rate design.

Its very existence underlines regulators’ understanding of the primary role of state-level policies and market forces in the disruption and evolution of the U.S. energy sector, a process that will continue regardless of who is in the White House.

Tony Clark at the NARUC Annual Meeting (Photo by K Kaufmann)
Tony Clark at the NARUC Annual Meeting (Photo by K Kaufmann)

Or as Tony Clark, former commissioner on the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission, succinctly put it — “There’s nothing Democratic or Republican about keeping the lights on.”

All that said, two weeks on, the stories that now feel relevant are the ones that have not been told — first, the lack of mainstream media coverage of the conference and the manual, and second, the somewhat limited focus of industry media coverage.

Missing story line 1: Mainstream media

Election and post-election coverage notwithstanding, I am not aware that any mainstream journalists attended the NARUC conference or have written about the manual — several Google searches have turned up only industry media stories. Rather, mainstream coverage of solar, utilities and regulators continues to focus almost exclusively on net metering — the compensation solar owners receive for power they feed back onto the grid — with stories framing the issue as an elemental utility-solar industry conflict.

The issues involved in this ongoing impasse are two-fold. As a former energy reporter for a mainstream daily, I know energy stories in general, even outside the election news cycle, are often a low priority, and mainstream editors like simple, adversarial narratives — utilities versus solar; retail-rate compensation versus anything less. On the other side, as communications manager for an energy industry nonprofit, I also know that many utilities have a notoriously bad track record at telling their own stories and working with media.

Changing the narrative: SEPA’s recent report, Beyond the Meter: The Potential for a New Customer-Grid Dyanamic, here.

NARUC’s DER manual provides an opportunity to try out some new, more collaborative narratives that might draw intense reader interest.

First of all, the manual is written in relatively plain, easy-to-understand language, providing a straightforward explanation of the issues that regulators, utilities and the solar industry face as more and more solar and other distributed energy resources (DERs) come onto the grid. The changes now underway mean consumers across the country will see changes in their electricity rates and in how they interact with their utilities and the grid. For anyone who wants to understand what’s driving this transition and the complex web of issues and interests involved, the manual is an accessible, well-organized starting point.

It would be an enormous public service if the mainstream media could pull back from net metering to see the more critical and compelling story of energy transition that they are largely missing — and start explaining it to their readers. Such stories might open up new avenues of communication with utilities and regulators. A growing body of research shows that while most consumers don’t spend much time with their utility bills — the proverbial 3-5 minutes per month — they do invest considerably more time looking for information on energy issues and have limited sources of reliable information.

Missing story line 2: Industry media

Industry media coverage of the manual has been generally informative and pragmatic, hitting on a few main points:

• The draft document NARUC released in July and the comments from more than 70 organizations it received and incorporated into the final version, which has generated overall praise for its balanced presentation of issues.
• The manual’s call for a cautious approach to DER-driven rate reform. Key factors include how much and how many different types of distributed technologies are actually on local distribution systems — and at what point rate impacts become significant — and the need for comprehensive data, very little of which is currently available.
• The process the manual lays out, focused not on any specific outcomes but on the questions regulators must start asking, and the data they must start collecting right now. NARUC officials also stressed that rate reform and DER customer compensation will be evolving issues that no one manual can resolve.

What is missing in this case is a more in-depth analysis of how regulators might actually interpret and apply the manual. As might be expected, many of those gathered in La Quinta were cautious about what they were willing to say on the record since almost any public utility commissioner at any one time will have an open proceeding relevant to one or more of the issues involved.

Christopher Villarreal, Director of Policy for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, talks about the DER manual at the NARUC Annual Meeting. Villarreal led the committee that drafted the manual. (Photo by K Kaufmann)
Christopher Villarreal, Director of Policy for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, talks about the DER manual at the NARUC Annual Meeting. Villarreal led the committee that drafted the manual. (Photo by K Kaufmann)

But a sense of the really vital questions going forward was evident at the conference, first, from attendance at specific sessions and, second, from the small army of advocates and researchers who also showed up, many with new reports in hand.

On that basis alone, it was clear that at least one of the key issues still to be resolved centers — as it has for the past few years — on how to value distributed technologies. The intensive campaign for regulatory hearts and minds on this issue continues unabated.

A session on the locational value of distributed technologies filled every seat in a sizable meeting room, with two rows of overflow attendees standing in rapt attention at the back. The main draw in this case was Sue Tierney, a widely respected industry consultant and author of a much-cited paper on the subject, “The Value of ‘DER’ to ‘D.’”

Check out the SEPA-Nexant report, “Addresssing the Locational Value Challenge” here.

“Show Me the Money,” Synapse Energy’s study for the Consumers Union on policies for distributed solar, echoed the NARUC manual in its focus on questions, although it narrowed the issues down to three:

• How will policies affect the development of distributed solar?
• How cost-effective are distributed solar resources?
• To what extent do policies mitigate or exacerbate any cost shifting to non-solar customers?

The Regulatory Assistance Project’s (RAP) contribution was a primer on decoupling — that is, disconnecting utilities’ profits from the amount of power they sell, critical for DER integration — and how to customize the approach for individual state markets. Rocky Mountain Institute provided a broader look at the growing electric vehicle (EV) market, beginning with an overview of its unique nature — framing EVs as DERs on wheels — and the central question of what role regulators will play in the sector.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) — my organization — was there to highlight its recent report, “Blueprints for Electricity Market Reform,” which lays out a process for stakeholder engagement, and the doctrines and working principles that involves.

What stays with me from the conference, two weeks on, is a clearer vision of the breadth and depth of change distributed energy technologies continue to generate in our industry — and the enormous effort all stakeholders are making just to keep up. What is clear from the coverage of the event — what was and wasn’t written — is how fast the narrative of this transition is also changing. To keep up, media, utilities and other stakeholders must find new ways to tell it.

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