Erika Bierschbach of Austin Energy: 2021 Energy Central Innovation ChampionPosted to Energy Central in the Clean Power Professionals Group
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- Apr 27, 2021 11:00 am GMTApr 22, 2021 12:49 pm GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-04 - Leaders In Innovation, click here for more
In early February, Energy Central dispatched our second annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation. We asked our community to nominate leaders who they thought were charging the path for rapid evolution across the sector today-- explicitly looking for those who carry the necessary attitudes to adapt to change while embracing and encouraging new ideas.
The response was overwhelming, making it challenging for the Energy Central Community Team and our committee of industry thought leaders-- selected from among our Energy Central Network of Experts-- to narrow the list of nominees to the final six Champions of Innovation.
I am happy to announce that Erika Bierschbach, VP of Energy Market Operations & Resource Planning at Austin Energy, was chosen as one of our final six. Erika was nominated for the leadership shown in launching the Reduce Emissions Affordability for Climate Health (REACH) program that created innovative new opportunities to drop emissions across the utility's customer base.
Please help us celebrate Erika's success by reading some of the insights garnered from an exclusive Innovation Champion Interview between her and Matt Chester, Energy Central's Community Manager. I would also love it if you congratulate her by leaving a message in the comments section at the bottom of this article, or even feel free to share a general question or comment for her on these important topics.
Digging into Erika's energy background
I’ve been in the energy industry since the early 90’s. In 1992, FERC 636 fostered competition in the natural gas industry by ensuring that all natural gas suppliers compete for gas purchases on equal footing. Hence, the natural gas futures contract was born. Knowing the natural gas futures market was where oil was decades previous was fascinating to me. I worked on trade floors and moved into electricity. When I moved to Austin, public power was dominant and I was introduced to many new aspects of the business, renewable energy being one of them.
I am responsible for the city’s power portfolio in the ERCOT wholesale market. I originate and manage the city’s renewable contracts and growing renewable portfolio. I am motivated by the evolving market design in ERCOT, emerging technology in the electric space with regards to storage, hydrogen and motivated to achieve my customer’s carbon free goals and learn how to spread that among communities across the country and globe.
Austin Energy's REACH program
REACH incorporates a cost of carbon to Austin Energy’s generation dispatch price and therefore reduces generation output during low margin periods. This allows us to reduce carbon in our operations and still make them available for high margin periods. The plan targeted carbon savings of 1.36 million metric tons for 2020. And as a reminder, the plan set a 30% reduction of the utility’s carbon emissions or 4 Million metric tons between inception of plan and Austin Energy’s exit from Fayette Power Plant at the end of 2022. After that 8% will be reduced annually from our gas fired generation until 2035 when we achieve zero carbon emissions from our units or sooner should the market dictate.
Our customers and the City of Austin have been focused on reducing their carbon footprint. Austin passed a climate emergency resolution in 2019. Austin Energy had been working with the city’s Office of Sustainability on ways to meet our customer’s and Austin citizen’s environmental goals. My team’s expertise is in finding market-based solutions for these types of complex issues.
How Erika approaches Innovation
My customers require affordability and price protection in our electric market. To make progress we need to be manage our risks and know we can’t have everything right now but with incremental progress, we will achieve our goals in a suitable timeframe. The assets I am applying REACH provide price protection among other things. As we continue to add carbon free solutions to our portfolio, we look to replacing these carbon emitting assets. Until I can replicate that value, we need to continue to wean ourselves but have access to that generation.
The new types of progress this collaboration has spurred is a look at overarching goals to drive creative thinking and solutions that are not hampered by static mandates. Mandates can be detrimental in their prescriptive nature and tone. It doesn’t allow for paths to the goal to pivot and change course when innovation encourages it to and therefore creating large risk of being outdated, behind innovation because a mandate has required you to stay on a stale path.
The unique environment of municipal utilities
I think we have both incentives and challenges being municipally owned. Our incentives or empowerment comes from being vertically integrated. We can leverage business units across the organization for mutual purpose and benefit. We can try different ideas because our customers are willing to pay the premium. Remember, they are willing to pay a premium, but they expect fiscal responsibility and prudent risk management so again understanding the trade offs and being able to manage them helps our position stay successful. The challenges are the other side of that coin, we are public power. We have guidelines and limitations we must work within and we have a smaller footprint (I can only market and acquire customers within my service territory) and have tighter budgets (we are a department of the city).
The Future of Innovation at Austin Energy
We have opportunity to innovate in many spaces whether it be DER, integrated resource planning on the distribution side, increasing the involvement of our customers as becoming part of our solution and ultimately increasing he amount of products my team has at its disposal to manage our customer’s price risk at our load zone will be one of many items we focus on over the next couple of years.
Energy Central thanks Erika Bierschbach for her irreplaceable contributions to our great industry and for truly embodying what it is to be an Innovation Champion. We encourage leaders to share a note of thanks, ask a question, or just your two cents in the comments below. To see the other Energy Central Innovation Champions, see the rest of the Special Issue on Innovation in the Electric Power Industry.