With another E Source Forum in the books, we thought we’d take some time to share the highlights from the great sessions and side interactions.
Here are our top three key takeaways from this event.
1. Consumers are key to a clean energy future.
Clean energy is clearly part of our future. SEPA’s Utility Carbon Reduction Tracker calls attention to the fact that 72% of U.S. customer accounts are served by an individual utility (or parent company) with a 100% carbon-reduction target. At the same time, many of those utilities admit to knowing how to get most of the way to their carbon goals, but not all the way. Retiring older coal power plants, optimizing natural gas generation and deployment of new renewable energy over the next few years tend to be key approaches to quickly reducing emissions. However, the increase in variable generation from wind and solar, as well as new electric load from the transportation sector, has the potential to exceed existing supply at some times of the day or year while also oversupplying at other times.
Solutions to align supply and demand for short periods, as well as seasonal shifts of huge amounts of power from the summer to winter, are anticipated. Technologies like large deployments of storage, nuclear microreactors and biofuels are seen as options to manage generation and transmission systems. But the demand side also needs to be considered. Distributed energy resources, including storage, smart thermostats, electric vehicles and other smart appliances, can help to shift the demand based on supply needs. The challenge is that rather than relying on a handful of power plants under the control of the utility, the entire market will rely on the aggregate of individual controls initiated through automation, a range of thresholds or manual consumer action.
2. Electrification is easier said than done.
When it comes to transitioning to a clean energy future, electrification is seen by many in the industry as an opportunity to reduce emissions from the building as well as the transportation. But it’s not without its challenges. Depending on when electric vehicles are charged and the location of fuel switching for heating appliances, peak demand can be driven up and there could be distribution system constraints. Additionally, a potential shift for some utilities from summer peaking to winter peaking could change the dynamics of the whole grid, pricing structures and more. That said, electrification can benefit the grid by adding additional electric appliances where use can be shifted to soak up extra renewable supply during off-peak hours and better align supply and demand to put downward pressure on rates through increased system optimization.
As previously mentioned, consumers and smart devices are expected to be a big component of this equation. Keeping consumers in mind, however, we also need to consider the cost and convenience (or lack thereof) when fuel switching. Electric technologies like heat pumps for space heating and induction stovetops provide efficient alternatives to furnaces and gas stoves. But the cost to replace these major appliances isn’t small, and the lifespan is long. Not to mention many consumers’ preferences for natural gas heating for convenience, comfort and general understanding of the technology. That’s not to say that electrification won’t happen. It just needs to be completed with an eye on the future while considering today’s customer preferences, regulatory policies and energy distribution infrastructure.
3. Bridge the gaps and break the silos.
Last but not least, if E Source’s acquisitions are any indication, the organizational and programmatic silos will hinder rapid change, as well as the opportunity to consider holistic approaches for the clean energy transition. The need for cross-functional collaboration comes from the fact that distributed energy resources have an impact on both demand- and supply-side initiatives that can’t be ignored. Additionally, holistically viewing system benefits could make investments in new technologies “pencil” out. For example: The low-hanging fruit of energy-efficient lighting for DSM programs is increasingly diminishing. But smart controls on efficient lights can help to deliver more savings when it’s most beneficial to the grid.
At the same time, the line is blurring between customer programs and utility operations. It’s by no means where it needs to be. However, through demand response, utilities are relying on customers to help “keep the lights on” when there is limited capacity from extreme weather events or unpredictable supply constraints. Plus, many of these concepts are increasingly applying to natural gas utilities that need to stay competitive by keeping rates low through smart customer programs and targeted investments to continue delivering safe, reliable energy.
From consumer engagement and electrification to technologies that better align energy supply and demand, E Source Forum underscored how the utility industry is constantly changing. At Copper Labs, we recognize that shift and are looking forward to helping utility program managers engage consumers, manage demand and optimize the grid with our scalable, easy-to-implement wireless real-time energy management (WREM) solution.
Learn more about WREM by watching this on-demand webinar “Managing Energy and Water Demand with Real-Time Grid Intelligence and Customer Engagement” with Xcel Energy and Sterling Ranch.