A growing number of states have embarked on sweeping grid reform efforts, each with its own local flavor.
California pushed beefy subsidies to launch rooftop solar and now distributed energy storage. New York has toiled for more than four years to perfect a market-based transition to utilities as distribution service platforms. Massachusetts is throwing money at solar and storage while chasing big offshore wind and Canadian hydro.
Ohio published its own grid reform road map, dubbed PowerForward, in August, and it doesn’t even mention the word “clean,” said Asim Haque, chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), in a talk at the Verge conference in Oakland last week.
A big reason for that is that Ohio has bifurcated power generation from power delivery, taking the PUCO out of the generation business. PowerForward, then, is not a road map for the future of Ohio’s currently coal-heavy electricity mix.
PowerForward instead addresses the distribution grid in a manner befitting the political battleground state, which has picked presidents of both major parties, but strongly favors Republicans in its state elections, Haque noted.
The plan envisions a more robust, interconnected grid, incorporating smart meters, energy data accessibility, EV charging infrastructure and non-wires alternatives, which use distributed energy resources to offset expensive wires upgrades.
But don’t expect to find a mandate for a certain number of solar rooftops or electric cars on the road, á la California.
“No flashy goals and then figuring out how to work backward,” Haque said in an interview after his talk. “We are going to artfully deploy the right infrastructure and create an innovative marketplace that will allow for innovation to reach customers, and it will eventually result in customers having way more control over power delivery than they've ever had.”
The first steps will deal with hard infrastructure, like expanding smart meter deployment beyond the small fraction of customers who currently have them. PowerForward also recognizes the coming wave of electric vehicles, and lays out principles for how utilities can approach the related infrastructure investments.
PUCO doesn’t like regulated utilities charging all ratepayers for chargers installed in private residences; grid improvements to deliver the power for EV charging, though, are fair game for cost recovery. So are chargers designed for public use, like on highway corridors.
“We're not trying to shove any particular product or service down anybody's throats in the state of Ohio,” Haque said. “We're trying to create the type of marketplace that allows for innovation to organically arise and be delivered to customers if customers choose it.”
That means that if someone wants to go full clean energy, they should be able to get solar panels on their roof, batteries and an EV charger in their garage, and time-of-use rates to match, Haque said. If they want nothing more than reliable energy at low cost, they should be able to get that too.
That’s an ambitious vision for a state that has just dipped its toes in the grid edge innovations sweeping other states.
The rooftop solar market in Ohio benefits from net energy metering, but as yet has remained small. Ohio deployed solar on 158 roofs in the second quarter of 2018, a rare quarter in which the state added more than 1 megawatt of residential capacity, according to Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables data.
The state has executed two non-wires alternatives (NWAs) projects already, both of which use battery storage to defer transmission and distribution upgrades while stacking other value streams. One of those was S&C Electric’s solar-storage microgrid for the Village of Minster's public utility.
PowerForward would encourage distribution utilities to pursue similar projects in front of the meter where they cost-effectively offset expensive infrastructure investments. To make that work, Ohio will need to streamline regulatory decision-making, Haque noted, so utilities contemplating an NWA can get an answer in something closer to 90 days, rather than a year or more.
"We feel convinced that this should be a part of the future, and if it is, then we need to have the right regulatory mechanism in place," he said.
Behind-the-meter NWAs will remain the province of competitive third-party providers. If market-based deployments create inequities by ignoring certain populations, there might be a role for utilities to step in, Haque added.
If successful, PowerForward would prepare the physical grid to become a “platform” for energy services, which could include third-party aggregators.
Measuring the success of the “consumers decide what they want” principle could be tricky, though.
As a general rule, the public at large knows far less about cutting-edge grid innovations than the policy wonks and technicians supporting their development. For consumers to get what they want out of electrical distribution, they need to know what their options are.
Removing regulatory and infrastructural barriers creates a space where consumers can exercise more agency. Then it will fall to industry and policy groups to guide them through the rapidly proliferating menagerie of energy options.