A New York Times analysis this month tallied the states that recently rolled back net metering and other policies to encourage distributed solar, attributing the developments in large part to a well-funded network of utility lobbyists.
In much of the nation, though, the solar-versus-utilities dynamic has given way to a more nuanced give-and-take over the future of the grid.
Although the political tensions are acute in many regions of the country, both parties can often get much more done as partners than as enemies. Earlier this year, I got to watch that process play out in real time.
Every year, the Rocky Mountain Institute convenes an eLab Accelerator, which brings in professionals from around the distributed energy industry and groups them with utility staff, politicians and other community stakeholders to tackle real world energy challenges. (I observed under Chatham House rules, meaning I can report topics discussed, but not attribute comments to individual participants.)
The teams hashed out their differences over several days at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah, tucked away from Wi-Fi and anything resembling a typical office environment. When they emerged, they reported a newfound understanding of the diverse perspectives at play beyond their own organizations.
“Not only are we bringing people together outside a formal proceeding or other legal process, but the way we bring them together is designed to create trust and transparency and equity in the conversation,” said Leia Guccione, the principal at RMI who oversees design and execution of the Accelerator, in an interview after the event.
This produces more than good feelings.
A gathering of Illinois energy experts at the first Accelerator, in 2014, created kernels of agreement that led to the state's bipartisan 2016 clean jobs bill. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities passed an order on microgrids directly influenced by a partnership between the city of Hoboken and utility PSE&G. Design work by New York City, utility Con Ed, and others last year spawned an electric-vehicle RFI.
The list goes on. Something about the process gets results.
Beyond technical expertise
The design of the eLab stems from a simple premise: Improving the grid is not fundamentally an engineering challenge.
“When you look at what it's going to take to transform not just the U.S. electrical system but probably any system in the world, it’s much more than just a technical challenge,” Guccione said. “You have institutions and organizations and all these financial and legal and regulatory and social issues that are also part of reinventing the system, so we need to take approaches that are equal to that challenge.”
Tackling one of those issues but not the others can doom a project.
In one case this year, Duke Energy had a plan for a new combined-heat-and-power plant to be hosted on Duke University's campus. The costs penciled out, it stacked value streams and addressed electrical needs on site and in the nearby distribution grid. But it didn't have popular support on campus. Even the high-level backing of the university administration couldn't stop that popular opposition from putting the project on hold.
Several teams at this year's Accelerator explicitly focused on local engagement as a core tenet of their project.
Duke Energy teamed up with the City of Charlotte and other local stakeholders to brainstorm how to deliver a microgrid to fortify the city's Public Safety Campus. Since this project could serve as a model for other utility-led microgrids, the team's discussions led to a deeper discussion around how to balance local benefits, like resilience, with value delivered to ratepayers, like grid services and renewable energy integration.
A team from Washington, D.C. took a similar grassroots approach to planning non-wires alternatives for reducing peak load growth as the city's population rises.
A team from Oakland, California endeavored to meet grid reliability needs while replacing a peaker plant with distributed energy resources and respecting and advancing the local needs of the residents.
Another group deliberated on how to place solar-plus-storage microgrids throughout Portland, Oregon to serve as hubs in the event of a major earthquake.
The teams toiled to prove whether the fix would work for the community it was meant to serve — not just work technically.
Level the hierarchy
Pulling top grid thinkers away from stale conference rooms and into a remote setting helps them focus more intensely on the conversation at hand, Guccione said.
“It helps people step back from the smaller problems that are consuming them in their day-to-day lives and reconnect with the fundamental things that are motivating them to do the work they do,” she said.
The Wild West landscape also changes the way people interact. Much of the business of grid evolution unfolds in the highly formalized, quasi-judicial world of state regulatory proceedings. The RMI process pulls individuals out of their own workplace hierarchies, and sits them down next to similarly unmoored counterparts from other organizations. The flat power structure attempts to remove differences between groups, and to generate insights that the participants wouldn't encounter in the usual way of doing business.
“It’s neutral territory,” Guccione said. “Nobody has the upper hand at this kind of venue.”
As night falls at the Sundance Mountain Resort, the slant glint of light on mementos from owner Robert Redford's role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hints at the possibilities of unlikely partnerships.