by Jeff St. John
June 02, 2017

Trump is pulling America out of the international Paris climate accord, tearing a gaping hole in the world’s international cooperation on reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

But that doesn't mean that the states in the U.S. are giving up their efforts. 

It’s hard to keep track of the state-by-state policy developments that affect the grid edge, but the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center is on the job. We’ve often cited the NCCETC’s 50 States of Solar report series, which tracks state solar policymaking across the U.S. Now the NCCETC has unveiled its 50 States of Grid Modernization, with the first report in the series published this month. Here’s a sample of its data, which we’ll be digging into in greater detail in the months to come. 

California’s time-of-use energy and net-zero-energy experiments

In California, a state that could take on the role of policy trendsetter in the absence of federal climate action, not a week passes without a few advances on the grid edge. This includes the relatively prosaic issue of customer electricity bills, and how to start charging people for power based on the time of day without hurting their interests.

This week, San Diego Gas & Electric received regulator approval for its $11.9 million default time-of-use (TOU) pilot, a critical step in this process. Unlike most pilots, which actively recruit customers to opt into the program, this will be an opt-out pilot, in which customers will automatically be enrolled unless they specifically tell the utility otherwise.

There’s a big difference in the utility world between opt-in and opt-out. The first usually gathers only minimal interest, in the low double digits. The second gets very high customer participation, up to 85 to 90 percent, at least at first. But you can’t switch everyone to new time-of-use plans without first testing a sample group’s reaction to them.

That’s what SDG&E will start doing later this year, when it sends out pre-default notifications to 120,000 eligible residential customers. Those who don’t opt out will be defaulted onto one of two default TOU rates (TOU-DR2 or TOU-DR3) starting in March 2018, in plenty of time for people to experience the price differentials of up to 2-to-1 from on-peak to off-peak hours before the summer peak season starts.

Meanwhile, the DOE’s national laboratories continue to lead green energy research across a broad front, including the built environment. This week, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) announced grants for two zero net energy (ZNE) research projects in California, a state that’s mandated that all new homes use no more energy than they generate themselves over the course of a year.

The first project will “provide detailed cost and performance modeling of ZNE homes and identify barriers” to their adoption, according to LBNL’s announcement. The other will look at how using natural-gas-powered distributed generators such as microturbines or fuel cells affects indoor air quality in ZNE homes. The California Energy Commission is providing $2 million in funding for the two projects.

New York ISO looking OK for the summer; Pennsylvania law could clear utility microgrid investment

While California has been facing some significant energy market instabilities of late, New York is looking solid for the summer. The New York Independent System Operator reported this week that it will have 41,013 megawatts of power resources available to meet forecasted peak demand conditions of 33,178 megawatts this summer.

This is approaching the record-setting peak of 33,956 megawatts that New York recorded in July 2013 at the end of a week-long heat wave, but the state has added resources since then. Of course, it still faces the challenge of replacing the retiring Indian Point nuclear power plant.

Pennsylvania isn’t among the handful of states with policies to support energy storage or microgrids -- at least, not yet. Legislation introduced this week would authorize a pilot program allowing utilities to earn a rate of return on microgrid investments, and open them to participation in wholesale markets. The bill could help address conflicts that led utility PECO to withdraw two microgrid proposals last year after customers voiced concerns about bankrolling the project.

Energy storage deployments and acquisitions 

We had a few noteworthy grid battery announcements this week, including Powin Energy’s 6.5-megawatt, 26-megawatt-hour project in Escondido, California. That’s a 4-hour duration project, which fits into SDG&E’s needs for resource adequacy to deal with the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant and the coming closure of some gas-fired power plants on the Southern California coast.

And German storage integrator and project developer Younicos and Doosan GridTech are delivering a 1.75-megawatt, 3.2-megawatt-hour energy storage system to Texas municipal utility Austin Energy, as part of the DOE’s Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar PV (SHINES) project.

Younicos, by the way, acquired most of its U.S. battery project portfolio when it bought bankrupt battery startup Xtreme Power.

This week saw another, albeit smaller, example of grid battery projects exchanging hands, with Renewable Energy Systems Americas (RES Americas) selling a 50 percent interest in its U.S. energy storage business to a subsidiary of Tokyo Electric Power. The business in question, Battery Utility of Ohio, owns and operates a 4-megawatt energy storage project interconnected to a distribution line owned by a unit of American Electric Power. It is also affiliated with West Chicago Battery Storage and Joliet Battery Storage, two 19.8-megawatt projects interconnected to distribution lines owned by Chicago-area utility Commonwealth Edison. 

AMI updates, solar storms and the utility-customer digital miss

In this week’s smart metering news, Landis+Gyr closed a deal with Brazilian utility State Electricity Distribution Company, aimed at data collection and management of data on commercial, industrial and residential customers in the Rio Grande do Sul service area. And Honeywell’s Elster opened a new business providing utilities with cloud analytics as a service, starting with the municipal utilities of Glenwood Springs, Colorado; St. John, Kansas; and the tribal utility Yakama Power in Toppenish, Washington.

Threats to the grid can include the highly unlikely -- like solar flares. This week, ESCO Technologies subsidiary Doble Engineering announced its Geomagnetic Disturbance Risk Mitigation Services program to “help customers comply with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation Standard TPL-007-1 and determine if their transformers are susceptible to geomagnetically induced currents triggered by solar storms.”

These geomagnetic disturbances have caused grid blackouts in the past, most notably the Hydro-Québec system blackout in March 1989. 

Finally, here’s the latest entry to our semi-regular feature, the latest in utility death spiral research -- or more accurately in this case, utility customer cluelessness research. Accenture released its latest New Energy Consumer report this week, which found a pretty big gap between customer expectations and experience in dealing with their utilities on the digital front.

According to the report, about one-third of energy consumers said that their utility’s websites and mobile interfaces couldn’t meet their online requests, with 38 percent citing this inability as “a key stressor” in their relationship with the utility. And more than half of consumers, or 54 percent, would “consider switching energy providers if products and services weren’t personalized.”

Grid stability vs. green energy: A false dichotomy

President Trump's decision to exit the Paris climate accord this week leaves the energy industry in a state of heightened uncertainty, and it represents yet another clear indication of the administration's preference for coal over clean energy. On the grid front, the next shoe to drop is expected to be Energy Secretary Rick Perry's new grid stability study, aimed largely at the financial struggles of baseload power -- coal and nuclear power, mainly -- against what it describes as the destabilizing influences of wind and solar power.

But this view is being challenged by many of the industries it’s ostensibly meant to protect. On the free market side, think tank The R Street Institute released a new policy study this week making the argument that grid reliability shouldn’t be linked to specific technologies at all, but rather to whatever the market can make of what’s available.

R Street Institute Electricity Policy Manager Devin Hartman argued that the idea that wholesale electricity markets undervalue baseload power is based on a false premise -- that coal and nuclear are the same thing as reliable, always-on grid energy.

“Pricing other resources more efficiently should increase real-time revenues for baseload plants, and improved scarcity pricing -- even in areas with capacity markets -- would result in a more accurate reflection of reliability services that would reward those resources that perform well, baseload and non-baseload alike," he wrote.

Wind energy is often seen as the poster child for the challenges of intermittency, with the famous spike graphs showing how a wind farm’s output can fluctuate wildly from moment to moment throughout the day. But according to Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke, his utility has adapted to the challenges associated with a big share of the country’s wind energy resource.

“I don’t think five or 10 years ago I'd be comfortable telling you we could not sacrifice reliability when we're going to have 35 percent of our energy come from wind,” he said at the Windpower conference this week. But, he added, “I’m telling you -- I'm very comfortable with that today.”

Indeed, Xcel is represented in one of the many studies that have already taken on the grid stability issue that Perry recently reopened, with findings that give confidence to a future grid that’s both stable and green.