- Aug 11, 2020 7:00 pm GMT
Six months into a global pandemic has highlighted just how substantially all of our fates are intertwined. Our individual decisions can have clear impacts on others…even when we may be blissfully unaware. We rely on each other’s sense of community to keep us safe and thriving. We rely on teachers to be able to educate our children safely so that we can go to work, mechanics to fix our vehicles when they break down and hair stylists or barbers to make us look presentable. Yes, I’ve tried the COVID cut…not a good look. Whether we realize it or not, we are all connected.
The energy industry isn’t really any different. At a community level, we are all literally connected. I live in a home that’s served by a transformer that steps up to the distribution system that flows through a sub-station and then onto a transmission system. My home is probably connected to that transformer along with six or so other homes and a talented utility engineer has done her best to estimate how much my load would potentially grow over the life of that transformer and how much the load of my entire neighborhood and surrounding area would grow over the life of that distribution feeder. This planning process occurred well before I decided to upgrade my wall and attic insulation, install Nest thermostats, retrofit my lighting systems and purchase my new Nissan Leaf.
By making these energy upgrades to my home, I have profoundly altered my energy footprint, and in doing so, I’ve made that distribution planning engineer’s life just a little bit harder. Adding to her pain, a few of my neighbors saw my EV and they decided to get one as well. Then a solar cooperative started offering services in our area and several of my neighbors added solar photovoltaics (PV) to their rooftops. I, too, plan to upgrade my roof with new PV panels soon. My deepest apologies to you, utility planning engineer.
This brings me to my main point. As an industry, we are failing ourselves and those we serve by continuing to focus our efforts on planning for individual conservation, renewable energy or decarbonization goals in a vacuum. And in many ways, we’re making planning for the impacts of these different technology rollouts that much harder. People neither know, nor care that their utility often has separate budgets and departments to manage DSM programs, solar programs and vehicle electrification programs. They don’t comprehend that regulators say this customer investment can only count here but not there. And they certainly don’t understand how these individual measures impact their composite load profiles. Most people don’t even know that they pay for electricity on a per kWh basis. They don’t understand how their choices and their neighbor’s choices are fundamentally altering the useful life of that pad-mounted transformer sitting on the street corner. They just want to reduce their total energy bill, and/or their carbon footprint. And they want their utilities and other energy service providers to make it easy for them. If you don’t believe me, watch a few of these highly entertaining videos from AESP emeritus member Bill LeBlanc of E Source.
Groups such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are working hard to develop tools that will allow utilities and energy service providers to better understand and adapt their planning processes to these more complex and variable end-use load profiles. If you haven’t seen their work on ComStock and ResStock, it’s worth checking out. You can download their summary report here. Technology providers such as one of our newest members, Clean Power Research, are also providing new algorithm-driven load modeling tools to help utilities better prepare for these evolving customer load profiles, both through enhanced distribution system planning and by aiding utilities in designing new aggregated customer product and service offerings that potentially check off more than one policy goal. These types of approaches can help utilities and their customers achieve their desired energy and decarbonization goals in a more efficient and comprehensive way.
While utilities may initially struggle to fully develop more connected customer energy offerings due to cross-subsidization challenges or other market design barriers, they can still take smaller steps to improve the overall customer experience. One step could be streamlining the customer program application process into one single access point for any type of customer-sited energy investment. Another step could be scheduling regular cross-department meet ups for solar, DSM, DR and electrification teams to compare customer insights, processes and impacts to organizational goals or government mandates.
While there may be requirements to plan for and measure energy efficiency, demand flexibility, electric vehicle and renewable energy programs separately, the impacts of investments in these technologies will each affect the other – possibly to the detriment of the utility and the electric grid if we don’t manage these investments in a proactive and unified manner.
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