Bringing the Utility and Solar Markets Together — Peacefully

When procuring solar onto the grid, utilities shouldn’t have to recreate the wheel, said Solar Electric Power Association CEO Julia Hamm at the PV America conference this week in Boston, Massachusetts, but the process also shouldn’t be a contentious cat fight. So Hamm posed a question for attendees: “How do we change the nature of this discourse – we don’t want to be kittens, but how do we get away from lions fighting each other?”

Since the utility market is highly regulated, it is very resistant to change and adaptation — quite different from the entrepreneurial spirit of solar. So it’s only natural that the two industries have hit some roadblocks on the road to integration, especially when it comes to distributed generation. “Utility-scale solar is easier for utilities to comprehend — it’s more of what they are used to dealing with. Distributed generation is where the challenges begin to come in,” said Hamm.

However, many Northeastern utilities are starting to figure it out. Massachusetts and New York, for example, are highly focused on the policy and business sides of distributed generation with the Mass. net-metering program and the N.Y. REV inititative. Northeast utilities must deal with a much different energy scenario than rest of country since there is not as much space for utility scale projects, so they are truly at the forefront of the utility of the future, according to Hamm. 

Many utilities are also starting to embrace community solar programs, which allow customers that aren’t able to (or don’t want to) install solar on their own roof to buy solar energy from one larger installation.

“Community solar means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it is the number one thing utilities want to talk about today,” said Hamm. “It’s a win-win for utilities, the solar industry and customers.”

To further bridge this utility-solar business gap throughout the entire U.S., SEPA began its 51st State Initiative back in October 2014. It asked both the energy community and general public to imagine a blank energy state — no market design, rate structures — and create their ideal energy market.

SEPA has been gathering submissions and is now in the process of evaluating the top concepts with the help of an expert panel. Soon it will release a campaign to educate the public on these concepts, and ask people to submit roadmaps on how to reach the ideal scenarios. These crowdsourced implementation scenarios will again be reviewed by a panel, who will compile a portfolio of roadmaps. The hope is that utilities from any region will be able to pick a roadmap that best fits their energy landscape, and tailor it to their renewable integration plan.

“There is a lot of excitement around this initiative — this is our attempt to change the nature of discourse,” said Hamm. “Let’s create a shared vision of the future. Let’s find ways to look at this collaboratively and design the future of solar and distributed energy resources.”

You can still submit your ideas to the 51st State Initiative here, and keep an eye out for the top concepts, which will be released in the coming months. 

Lead image: Orange cat. Credit: Shutterstock.

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Former editor of I hold a MA in Professional Writing and BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and a certificate in Professional Communications: Writing from Emerson College.

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