Renewables in Reach for Utilities
Throughout history and literature, an abiding sense of adventure perpetually draws humanity forward. The “frontier,” whether unexplored territory or untapped potential, epitomizes both danger and reward for those willing to venture forth. For distribution co-ops in today’s unprecedented technological landscape, however, the frontier is a moving target, and—ready or not—it has come to us. RE Magazine has followed these amazing shifts at large, and specifically in two fantastic articles discussing the industry’s changes and developments with several industry experts and leaders, including Jim Spiers, the NRECA vice president of Business and Technology Strategies. “In all my years in the electric industry, I’ve never seen this much churn coming from this many directions,” said Spiers. “It can be daunting, but it’s also exciting.” You can find our list of critically important factors co-ops should consider as they approach renewables with their members in mind. Here, we’ll review those seismic shifts changing the renewables frontier for co-ops and their members nationwide.
The Uncharted Land of Distributed Generation
Increasing consumer desire to “go green” is an undeniably good thing even while the implications and practical requirements are complex and potentially disruptive. Jan Ahlen, NRECA senior regulatory specialist, sees a way forward: “There’s a middle ground where we can provide consumers with choices at the same time we’re doing something that works for the system as a whole.” Just as distribution cooperatives were first created to serve communities, today’s cooperative distribution systems are perfectly positioned to serve those same populations as leaders in community renewables projects. Andrew Cotter, an NRECA program manager, suggests that community solar installations are co-ops’ best bet at staying competitive. He explained, “No matter how inexpensive PV panels may be, it’s always cheaper to install a 500-kilowatt or 1-megawatt system.” So, as the established maintainers of the grid and infrastructure, co-ops can further empower their members in selling this “scale-as-service.” Ahlen concluded that co-op-led community solar, “is enabling consumers to pool their resources, reduce the price for everyone, and integrate distributed generation in a way that works for the system as a whole.”
An Explosion of Data and Control
Smart Grid measuring and monitoring has already changed the industry, and is set to continue doing so on even larger scales. Add to that the proliferation of technologies (and the companies who sell them) that empower consumers with the information they want for making better energy decisions, and the energy distribution landscape becomes almost unrecognizable. Fortunately, beneficial opportunities abound in these landscape-shaping changes, and Martin Lowery, NRECA executive vice president for Member and Association Relations, sees them. This mountain of data, “can be harnessed for good in terms of better energy management and better communications,” he said. Co-ops exploring and taking advantage of these tools are making themselves the go-to leaders for their customers.
As technology continues sprinting forward making awareness and control more attainable for consumers, it behooves co-ops to shift from commodity-based thinking to consumer/service-based thinking at large, and especially in the renewables arena. Third parties in green energy are selling “consumer empowerment” as a service. They are, “interacting with consumers on quality-of-life issues using a combination of devices, new technologies, and business models,” acknowledged Spiers. Thankfully, co-ops and third party renewables vendors can work together for mutual benefit. After all, co-ops already have a long tradition of consumer-focus, from conservation programs to community education. “Co-ops are inherently suited to meet this challenge,” said Spiers. “Consumers are already an integral part of co-op business.” When co-ops engage their memberships from their natural role as leaders in energy services and information, they position themselves with a clear advantage in the continually developing renewables race.
“Co-ops have to think about how they position themselves as a trusted energy advisor,” said Spiers. As the distribution landscape continues to change, people are going to need a guide.