Staying ahead of the curve: How MMWEC became an incubator for municipal power innovation | SEPA Skip to content

Staying ahead of the curve: How MMWEC became an incubator for municipal power innovation

The Town of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts spent four years, and went through two open bidding cycles, to find a developer for a solar project planned for a local landfill site — only to see two prospective deals fall through at the last minute.

Town leaders looked to Michael Hale, General Manager of Shrewsbury Electric and Cable Operations (SELCO), the town’s municipal utility, to find a way to complete the project. Hale decided to call Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company — aka, MMWEC (pronounced “em-wec”).

That call was made in November 2017, Hale said. Within two months, MMWEC, a joint action agency that provides power and other services to municipal utilities across Massachusetts, had signed a deal to finance the project from its own pooled loan fund. It then built the plant, and will own it following a June 29 ribbon cutting, with SELCO buying all the power.

“For all intents and purposes, the project was dead,” Hale said. “If the MMWEC program didn’t exist, this 3-megawatt solar project wouldn’t exist.”

If you’re not a municipal utility in Massachusetts, you may not be familiar with, or even have heard of MMWEC, recipient of the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s (SEPA) 2018 SEPA Power Players Award for Innovative Partner of the Year. But as it approaches its 50th birthday, the agency has transformed itself from a traditional vehicle for helping small municipals participate in wholesale power markets to a virtual incubator for new clean energy technologies and programs.

“When MMWEC was established in 1969, the focus was on central power plants,” said Matthew Ide, the group’s Executive Director of Energy and Financial Markets. “The marketplace has come a long way since then. We have to be a lot more proactive in being aware of what’s coming down the pike in technology — what it will be, how it can provide benefits — and get out ahead of it.”

The Shrewsbury solar project is just one example of this philosophy, which has evolved into provided an innovative bundle of programs and technology offerings called MMWEC’s Emerging Technologies Initiative.

Another example, MMWEC has worked with Sterling Municipal LIght Department (SMLD) in central Massachusetts, on a pilot called the Peak Projection and Remote Dispatch Project. Essentially, the agency leverages its technology to coordinate the operation of Sterling’s own solar and storage project to cut the town’s peak demand and transmission costs. Savings thus far are almost $500,000, said Sean Hamilton, SMLD’s General Manager.

Energy storage in Sterling, Massachusetts: MMWEC’s predictions on when to charge and discharge the battery have been “spot on,” said Sean Hamilton, SMLD’s General Manager.

An electric vehicle (EV) initiative available to all MMWEC members provides both incentives for purchasing EVs — in this case, Nissan Leafs — and a free charger that comes programmed to avoid or throttle down the rate of charging at times of peak demand.

So far, this managed charging program has only a handful of participants, said Mike Waters, Director of Utility Programs at ChargePoint, the company providing the programmed chargers for MMWEC.

But, he said, EVs are expected to be a growing and potentially disruptive load for small municipals, pushing up early evening peaks — when EV owners get home and typically plug in to recharge their cars.

“That’s what’s really great,” Waters said. MMWEC is “being forward-thinking, even though it’s not (yet) an issue.”

Paul Zummo, Director of Policy Research and Analysis at the American Public Power Association, sees MMWEC as part of a larger trend among similar state-level organizations to help their members — often small-town municipal utilities — evaluate and pilot new technologies.

But, he said, “Most of our members are kind of looking at what’s out there: they are taking stock. MMWEC is out front in terms of programs.”

Technology disruption or simple facts?

Harking back to their origins, supplying electricity for city and residential lighting, many of Massachusetts’ 40 public power utilities are still called municipal light departments or plants. About 70 percent of these utilities are either MMWEC members or are participating in an agency project — or both.

From the beginning, Matthew Ide said, the organization’s purpose and philosophy was “to provide services on a cooperative basis and at a lower cost to municipals, and allow them to participate in projects and services” they couldn’t otherwise afford.

On a day-to-day basis, that means managing members’ transactions with the New England Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that manages the region’s transmission grid, and financing a range of projects.

The tipping point, for MMWEC and the municipals, was the growth of solar projects across Massachusetts, driven by a number of state initiatives and incentives. In SEPA’s most recent Utility Survey, Massachusetts ranked sixth in the nation in overall solar capacity.

“The rapid adoption of rooftop solar on homes really sent a lot of our municipal utilities into some level of stress to accommodate some of the technical ramifications on their distribution systems,” Ide said.

The Emerging Technologies Initiative was MMWEC’s response to the fast-changing technical landscape, and the resulting challenges, ranging from system planning with intermittent resources to Massachusetts’ own version of the duck curve.

“The important point is, these are not reasons not to adopt the technology,” he said. “These are simple facts. We have to get out ahead of them and make adjustments to create benefits.”

The next curve

Which is where Sterling and MMWEC’s Peak Projection and Remote Dispatch Project come in. MMWEC developed its own software for system monitoring and analysis, and is also planning a control room for the program.

Sterling installed its first solar projects — two 1-MW plants — in 2013, and added 2 MW of battery storage in 2016. For Hamilton, working with MMWEC to optimize the efficiency and revenue of the combined technologies was a natural fit.

“The weather in New England changes by the minute — the temperature, the loads, the time of day,” he said. “They were giving us (peak) predictions and we were programming our batteries to (discharge) on their predictions, and they were spot on.”

The next step was allowing MMWEC remote control of the batteries for price arbitrage — that is, sending a signal for the batteries to charge when power prices are lowest, about 2 or 3 a.m., Hamilton said.

“Sterling allowed us to make certain connections,” Ide said. “We could connect peak projection and batteries, and the net result is that we can reduce system load and allow each individual system to generate power at the most critical time. That power is very efficient.”

Sterling recently added another solar and storage project to the MMWEC program  — a 1-MW community solar plant backed up with another megawatt of storage — and, Ide said, three members adding storage to existing solar projects in the coming months will be next.

West Boylston Municipal Light Plant, also in central Massachusetts, is adding a small, but innovative flywheel battery to a 370-kilowatt solar project. While most flywheel batteries are short duration — that is, they can provide quick power, but not for very long — West Boylston’s will be  long duration. It can last up to four hours, said Jonathan Fitch, the utility’s General Manager.

Through the Peak Projection and Remote Dispatch program, he is hoping to shift solar’s typical mid-day production peak to early evening, and produce at least three separate revenue streams — peak and load management, price arbitrage and grid support services, he said.

While investor-owned utilities are adopting solar, storage and other clean energy technologies as a result of state mandates, Fitch says, MMWEC and its members are “doing it on our own because of our ratepayers. It’s an example of local power and local control doing the right projects without state mandates.”

Moving forward, Ide said the next curve MMWEC is looking to get ahead of is smart home technology, such as smart thermostats and other energy management systems.

“The home is a fertile field for positive adoption,” he said. “The technologies that are going to be available to homeowners, to monitor, shift and reduce energy use, are going to have an impact on distribution, unleashing a potential resource that our members have never had access to before.”

MMWEC and other SEPA Power Player honorees will receive their awards at the Power Players Dinner, on July 10, in Washington, D.C., as part of SEPA’s Grid Evolution Summit. Reservations for the dinner are available here.

Summit registration is available here.