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SEPA’s Top 10 Blogs for 2016: How We Are Changing the Narrative

Anyone who has read the blog posts I have authored and edited over the past year will know I believe strongly that transforming the U.S. energy sector also requires changing the way we think, talk and write about energy. For the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), the SEPAPower blog is one of the ways we contribute journalistic-quality stories and models aimed at changing the narrative about our transitioning industry.

So, when I look at the 10 most popular blogs of 2016, what is significant is not only the particular trends or topics they cover, but the voices and stories they contain.

The 10 most-read SEPAPower blogs of 2016 were:

  1. Small town in Ohio creates industry buzz with solar plus storage
  2. Why FERC 745 is about more than demand response
  3. To build the grid of the future, utilities must let go of the past
  4. A solar story from Arkansas shines light on Q1 utility-scale market
  5. Santa and elves flatten “reindeer curve” with new microgrid
  6. Transactive energy pilot to test customer acceptance of real-time pricing scheme
  7. The real net metering story: Not precedents, but many solutions
  8. Beyond technology: Why the energy transition needs social science
  9. California: A case study on DERs’ capability to replace peaker plants for grid support
  10. Community solar tipping point: Flexibility + access = market growth

The blog is one of the most-visited pages on our website, and the topics covered in the Top 10 reflect how our industry and SEPA itself have changed in the past 12 months. Even before our official name change, from Solar Electric Power Association to Smart Electric Power Alliance, we had expanded our focus beyond solar to include other distributed energy resources (DERs), such as demand response, storage and microgrids.

That said, what the list also shows is that the energy transition is full of engaging, compelling stories waiting and needing to be told. Yes, energy stories can get technical and complex, but we need to find ways to translate them into human terms, to mix good storytelling with clearly explained technical detail — the approach in four of our Top 10 blogs.

Lining up for the ribbon cutting at the Village of Minster storage project are (left to right) Michael Edmonds of S&C Electric, Minster Mayor Dennis Kitzmiller, Village Administrator Don Harrod, Michael Hastings of Half Moon Ventures and Yu Weizhou, CEO of Concord New Energy, a project investor. (Photo by K Kaufmann)
Lining up for the ribbon cutting at the Village of Minster storage project are (left to right) Michael Edmonds of S&C Electric, Minster Mayor Dennis Kitzmiller, Village Administrator Don Harrod, Michael Hastings of Half Moon Ventures and Yu Weizhou, CEO of Concord New Energy, a project investor. (Photo by K Kaufmann)

I fell in love with our No. 1 story about Minster, Ohio — a town of 2,850 now recognized as an innovator for the solar-plus-storage project it brought online last year — and, it seems, our readers did, too. It stayed on our Top 10 list for months and was far and away the most popular blog of the year.

Small-town and small-utility stories also show the extent to which change continues to spread throughout the utility industry — and the important but often unacknowledged role public power utilities and electric cooperatives are playing as test grounds for innovation and market growth.

The Aerojet Rocketdyne solar project. (Photo courtesy of Silicon Ranch Corp.)
The Aerojet Rocketdyne solar project. (Photo courtesy of Silicon Ranch Corp.)

Thus, our No. 4 blog reports on two Arkansas co-ops that partnered with a local aerospace firm, Aerojet Rocketdyne, on a 12-megawatt solar project, using a unique power purchase agreement to nearly quadruple the state’s solar capacity. Like the Village of Minster, the Ouachita and Arkansas electric cooperatives were not on most media radars.

I also jumped on the story behind our No. 6 blog — an energy industry veteran, Ed Cazalet, still innovating with a highly experimental pilot project in California to demonstrate the potential of a truly transactive grid.

reindeer_curve_495x449

Our No. 5 blog is all about storytelling; our fanciful take on Santa’s microgrid and the “reindeer curve” was our initial foray into DER-driven fiction. We knew it was risky, but felt that a little humor and a good story could explain a complex technical subject. Given the joyous response from our readers, you agree.

New views and voices

Many of our Top 10 blogs also reflect SEPA’s commitment to thought leadership and providing an open platform for information-sharing, dialog and collaboration across the diverse stakeholders in our industry.

On that theme, three of our Top 10 blogs were written by guest authors, adding outside views and voices to the discussion.

Frank Lacey, author of our No. 2 blog on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the FERC 745 case — FERC v. EPSA — explained how all DERs, not only demand response, stood to be affected by the ruling, whichever way it went. SEPA does not, as a rule, comment on policy issues, but Lacey’s piece, written a few weeks before the ruling in favor of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), was clear-sighted and prophetic, predicting the decision would be one of the top energy stories of 2016.

Changing utility business models and the status of the historic regulatory compact between investor-owned utilities and regulators were among the year’s most widely discussed topics. Our No. 3 blog, by consultant James Tong, challenged long-held industry assumptions on these issues, while also recognizing the central role utilities will continue to play in our energy-driven economy.

In our No. 8 blog, Jennie C. Stephens, a professor at the University of Vermont, made the case for more social science research on the impacts of the energy transition across different demographic groups in our country. Echoing our own focus on smaller utilities, Stephens said, a social science approach might better integrate the needs and lessons learned from small municipal utilities and rural cooperatives into the industry’s mainstream discussions.

The unavoidables

Of course, some issues were unavoidable in 2016. Yes, I’m talking about net metering, the compensation residential rooftop solar owners receive for excess power they pump back onto the grid, which was a primary focus of energy coverage in mainstream and industry media. But the piece I wrote, No. 7 on the Top 10 list, also reframed the discussion and challenged assumptions, such as what a reasonable rate of return for a residential rooftop system should be.

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The California duck curve (Source: California Independent System Operator)

Our No. 9 and 10 blogs took on other unavoidables — respectively, the California duck curve and community solar. The duck curve has become a symbol of the impact rooftop solar can have on power supply and demand on distribution systems — the midday drop in demand when panels are pumping excess power onto the grid, and steep late afternoon ramp when solar tapers off. In the No. 9 blog, SEPA researcher Nick Esch and program manager Ryan Edge focused on the diverse capabilities of DERs to help “make the duck fly” by deferring the need for expensive distribution system upgrades or peaker plants.

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Our piece on community solar, No. 10, looked at the diverse ways these projects can and are being used across the country, for example, to expand access to solar to low-income and underserved communities. The number of utility-led community solar projects are growing as well, helping utilities gain experience with solar while also responding to customer interest in clean energy.

One thread running through all these pieces — and possibly one reason for their popularity — is that we are always trying to bring something new to industry discussions, a trend we definitely expect to repeat in 2017. We will continue to change the narrative with stories and ideas that are being missed elsewhere, and we invite your input and contributions.

More compelling and critical stories undoubtedly lie ahead.

K Kaufmann is SEPA’s communications manager. She can be reached at kkaufmann@sepapower.org.

 

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