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The SEPAPower Top 10: What you read in 2017 and why it matters

If I had to pinpoint one term — or abbreviation — that could encapsulate the scope and speed of change in the electric industry in 2017, it would have to be DERs, distributed energy resources. That umbrella term — encompassing but not limited to solar, storage, electric vehicles, demand response, microgrids and smart thermostats — lies behind or is in some way connected to almost every major trend and topic covered in the energy industry media over the past year.

At least, that’s what I kept thinking as I reviewed the most popular posts to the SEPAPower blog for 2017. Blogs are published weekly on the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) website, and the list here is based on unique views for each piece.

As main editor and occasional writer for the blog, my goal, every week, is to provide substantive views and information in ways that engage and hopefully expand our audience. The articles that made the 2017 Top 10 list are a measure of the blog’s success, showing both what you, our readers, are interested in, and the most effective, compelling ways to tell these stories and transmit key information.

The case in point is our No. 1 blog for 2017 — Distributed Energy Resources 101 — which is not really a blog, but an annotated bibliography of core articles and studies on DERs. SEPA partnered with Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) on the project, aiming to provide a basic understanding of DER technologies, and to demystify their capabilities and potential impacts. The response was overwhelming — thousands of unique views, about four times more than any other blog last year — confirming the broad interest and the need for a concise, focused format.

Based on its ongoing popularity, we again partnered with RMI and AEE to update and expand this post as a downloadable report, retitled Beyond the Meter: Recommended Reading for the Modern Grid.

Another hot topic that got the 101 approach was our No. 9 blog on transactive energy. More primer than bibliography, this piece, by SEPA’s Chief Architect David Hardin, drew positive reviews for its clear, balanced explanations of what is often covered as a highly technical and complex topic.

Transactive energy can turn DERs — from solar and storage to EVs and smart appliances — into grid assets. (Source: Ed Cazalet).

2017’s stealth buzzword: aggregation

While the interest in DERs and transactive energy was expected, the popularity of blogs centered on aggregation — of technologies and customers — was a bit of a surprise. The No. 2 post for the year was centered on storage, but focused on why this technology — fast becoming the energy industry’s jack of all trades — has the potential to change how we think about, produce and use energy. It’s not about allowing customers to disconnect from the grid, but rather about creating a platform for the aggregation of DERs to provide critical grid-support services that benefit customers, utilities and the grid.

Meanwhile, the spread of community choice aggregation (CCA) has been one of the more visible signs of the disruption to traditional business models now transforming the electric utility industry from the inside out. Industry media tends to cover CCAs in adversarial terms — cities and community groups vs. utilities. Our No. 10 blog, by SEPA’s Executive Affairs Manager Rachel Henderson, looks beyond the basic economics — the lower rates CCAs may offer — to why and how they can drive change, and the challenges and unanswered questions still to be resolved.



While the word is not actually used, aggregation is the subtext for our No. 3 blog on managed charging for electric vehicles (EVs). Obviously, EVs, and the electrification of transportation in general, were another of 2017’s hot topics, but Erika Myers, SEPA’s Director of Research, offered a different perspective. Here, she makes a strong case for managed charging — essentially aggregation of EV chargers — as a flexible grid asset, and an opportunity for growth and customer engagement for utilities.

Small-town stories

When we talk about “grid-edge” innovation at SEPA, we generally don’t mean the technological complexities of DER infrastructure, which has become the standard industry usage. Rather, our grid-edge stories tend to focus on the smart, creative projects being developed by small municipal utilities and electric cooperatives, frequently in the most unlikely places.

Our No. 5 blog on the Ouachita Electric Cooperative in Camden, Arkansas, definitely falls into this category. How the co-op came to develop a 12-megawatt (MW), behind-the-meter solar system for its largest customer, defense contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne, was an irresistible, insightful case study in utility-corporate customer relations.

It also underlined the often pent-up demand for solar in small, rural communities and the impact such projects can have on economic development.  For example, after working on the Aerojet project, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., which provides power to Ouachita and other co-ops in the state, started its own for-profit solar subsidiary, building community solar plants in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Our No. 6 blog — on an innovative community solar program in Fremont, Nebraska — is another small-town story that flew under the media radar. Director of Communications Mike Kruger recounts how SEPA helped the town with a preliminary market survey to gauge local interest and priorities for community solar. As a result of that survey and subsequent public meetings, local residents were offered a range of options for buying into the project, which had to be expanded twice to meet customer demand.

States take the lead

2017 also saw an increasing number of states launch their own initiatives for grid modernization and energy sector transformation, with pioneering states such as Hawaii and New York as their models.

Hawaii figured in two of our Top 10 blogs — Nos. 4 and 8 — both of which focus on the new power purchase agreement (PPA) Hawaiian Electric Company developed this year — based on research and recommendations from SEPA and ScottMadden. No. 4 covers this initial report, outlining the key provisions of the proposed new PPA. The contract is designed to cut solar overproduction and curtailment, while ensuring critical grid support services, as Hawaii works toward its goal of running 100-percent on renewable energy by 2045.

No. 8, by John Sterling, SEPA’s Directory of Advisory Services, brings the story up to date, with Hawaiian Electric’s request for proposals for 330 MW of renewable generation — wind or solar — using the new contract. If successful, the resulting projects could provide clean, dispatchable power to the five self-contained island grids in the utility’s service territory.

New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative is targeted at building a 21st-century grid, not just rebuilding the 100-year-old legacy model, said Richard Kauffman, who as the state’s “energy czar” has spearheaded the effort. Our No. 7 blog, based on his speech at last year’s Solar Power Northeast, touches on the key drivers for REV — rate reform; utility incentives for DER adoption; and the collaboration possible between utilities, solar firms and other industry stakeholders working toward common goals.

Looking ahead

Our final blog of 2017 was a piece by SEPA President and CEO Julia Hamm, telling the very compelling story of her involvement in current efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico’s hurricane-ravaged electric system and her recent visit to the island. It didn’t make the Top 10, but is certainly worth an honorable mention here.



The destruction of island energy systems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands was a defining moment and challenge for the U.S. energy industry — one that Hamm and others are answering with passion and commitment. DERs and all we have learned thus far in the U.S. energy transition will be critical going forward — as will the ability to look beyond conventional, convenient buzzwords for new perspectives and approaches.

I can’t wait to find out and publish the stories about what happens next.