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Utility Solar Conference Maps Speed of Change in Energy Sector

By K Kaufmann

I arrived at my first Utility Solar Conference (USC) in 2014 something of a wide-eyed newbie. Hired by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) as its new communications manager only a few weeks before, I was at the conference in Newport Beach, California mostly to start networking with utility leaders and absorb a better understanding of the utility solar sector.

Two years have flown by, and as I prepare for my third USC, April 11-14 in Denver, I dug up the 2014 program to see how the conference and the industry have changed in that time.

Two years ago, a main focus of the conference was on how utilities could become “solar ready.” Workshops mostly looked at emerging technology and trends — new advanced inverters, value of solar rates — that raised questions and the occasional bit of skepticism among some attendees.

2014 USC
SEPA President and CEO Julia Hamm opened USC 2014 with a presentation on building a “solar smart” utility.

Not all utilities had completely grasped the idea that energy system change was coming and that they needed to get out in front of it. Fast forward two years, and few in the industry think holding on to the industry’s 100-year-old status quo of large, centralized generation and a one-way grid is even an option.

This year’s USC agenda reflects that shifting perspective with a comprehensive picture of the dynamic transition underway in the industry. The common thread running through many of the workshops is utilities’ role as key players piloting new technologies and business models, while reaching out to forge new relationships with technology developers and their own customers.

Just one example — while the 2014 conference featured a somewhat wonky, day-long workshop on utility-scale solar procurement, this year’s event begins with a day-long workshop on community solar. Interest in these smaller-scale projects is propelling a fast-growing market that is allowing more utilities to raise their comfort level with solar while responding to their customers’ interest in solar.

Read SEPA’s report on “Accelerating Adoption of Community Solar” here.

The pattern is repeated throughout this year’s program. In 2014, we had one workshop on the changes underway in Hawaii as utilities there began to see high levels of solar on the grid. This year, we have sessions covering the regulatory and grid overhauls moving forward in Hawaii, California and New York.

Grid modernization and distributed energy resources were peripheral or almost nonexistent topics in 2014; actually, the term “distributed energy resources,” or DERs, was not in common use at the time. This year, both topics get high-profile sessions, from a workshop on the Department of Energy’s Grid Modernization Initiative to a forum on pilot programs allowing utilities to harness distributed technologies on the customer’s side of the meter to benefit consumers and the grid.

Innovative strategies for customer communication and engagement have also become a hot topic, as utilities encounter a new generation of energy consumers with very different expectations about the kinds of services they want from their power companies. USC this year includes three sessions looking at various aspects of the topic — versus one in 2014 — plus a day-long forum on how to communicate with customers about sensitive rate design issues, such as time-of-use rates and alternatives to net metering.

Equally significant are the workshop topics making their first appearance at this year’s conference, reflecting how solar is transforming every aspect of the energy sector. The list includes how utilities are meeting workforce challenges triggered by solar, the best solar business models for municipal and electric cooperative utilities, and how electric vehicles might be used to flatten late afternoon power demand peaks, aka, the duck curve.

But for me, the biggest change between then and now is in how utilities are approaching all these issues. However disruptive they have been to the industry’s business and regulatory models, solar and other distributed technologies are coming to be seen more as an opportunity than a threat.

Energy system change will also be on the agenda at SEPA’s upcoming National Town Meeting in Washington, D.C. Find out more here.

A central question driving the industry — and SEPA’s own evolution — is how to get from today’s increasingly hybrid mix of old and new technologies to utility, grid and energy consumer 2.0?

With the opening of USC on April 11, I will be communications manager for the Smart Electric Power Alliance, a name change that — as the conference agenda shows — confirms both our ongoing commitment to solar and its growing role in the larger energy system transformation. Part of my work at the event will be to write about the road maps to energy system change SEPA is helping to develop as part of the second phase of our 51st State Initiative, an effort to overcome divisive debates in the industry by focusing on common goals and strategies.

What we have learned, and I believe this year’s conference will reinforce, is that change in the industry is progressing at different speeds and in different ways across the country, depending on local markets. Among the ever-growing number of energy conferences, USC will remain a unique forum for this transition, providing an open, dynamic space for utilities to listen and learn from each other.

The Utility Solar Conference will be held April 11-14 in Denver. Registration is still open but is limited to employees of investor-owned, municipal or electric cooperative utilities. The conference agenda is available here

K Kaufmann can be reached at [email protected]