Clean Energy Leadership Emerging in Washington, DC

About a month ago, legislators for the District of Columbia introduced a bill that, if passed, could revolutionize how utilities deliver power to customers.  The bill is known as the Distributed Energy Resources Authority Act. It would establish an independent body that ensures DC utilities look at non-wires alternatives whenever they propose to spend more than $25M on construction to expand capacity or enhance reliability. The independent body would determine if any of the capacity or reliability requirements could be met with energy efficiency, demand response or distributed energy resources (DERs) like solar and storage.

Progressive City Council and Slow-moving Utility 

Tony Clifford is CEO of Standard Solar, a company that has installed multiple megawatts of solar in the District of Columbia and he offered some context.

According to Clifford, Washington, DC has been a leader in clean energy for some time. For example, the city is the only LEED Platinum-certified city in the world.

“They have all sorts of solar and other renewable attributes,” he said.

On the other hand, the city is plagued with an aging grid that is desperately in need of updating.

As an example, Clifford said that in 2008, Standard Solar installed a 205-kW solar array on the headquarters of the Department of Energy and at the time the utility, Pepco, was very worried about overloading the grid.

“So we had to do a lot of gymnastics to show that we would never be exporting power to the grid,” said Clifford.

That was 10 years ago and not much has changed other than “empty platitudes and pilot projects” according to a source that is close to the matter.

Opening the Black Box

The new legislation would mean that the “black box” of electricity data would now be accessible to third-parties who could bid on projects that the utility is proposing to solve grid problems. For example, there is currently a $720M infrastructure proposal on the table. Pepco says it needs to install three new substations around the city and make other important upgrades to the grid to keep it functioning. If approved, Pepco would “rate-base” that capital expenditure, which means that anyone who pays a utility bill would pay for the improvements.

If the DER Authority Act were to pass, however, that $720M would be compared to a non-wires alternative. In other words, third-parties would have a look at the electricity data and see if they could solve the problem through DER solutions, like rooftop and community solar, energy storage, energy efficiency, demand response and more.  

And while it would seem an obvious conclusion that the utility had already explored those solutions, it simply doesn’t function that way.

The DC utility was created in the 1890s and the DC Public Service Commission, which oversees the monopoly utility was created in 1913. Its mandate is to deliver reliable, affordable electricity and it has done that very successfully.

“Now we’re saying that you have to think about distribution of power differently. Because we need to move away from centralized power, from poles and wires, and move to DERs,” said the source.

“I don’t think culturally that entities that have done the same things for 100 years are able to turn that big huge battleship around. I think it’s just really hard.”

Clifford sees the legislation as a warning bell to other utilities. He said he believes utilities are going to have to be more responsive to what their customers want and what their customers government’s want.

“[Pepco] could have moved forward on this on their own 3 or 4 years ago and they chose not to,” he said.

The legislation could be up for a vote as early as this summer.

Related: Renewable Energy and DERs Are a Better Deal than New Gas Generation Almost Every Time

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Jennifer Runyon
Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. You can reach her at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com Today, in addition to managing content on Renewable Energy World and POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference and expo for the transmission and distribution industry. In her role, she works in close cooperation with a large team of committed industry executives to shape the educational content for the event. She also helps assemble the renewable energy content for POWERGEN and helped launch the first Grid-Scale Storage Summit, a co-located event at HYDROVISION International. She has traveled to Germany to see onshore and offshore wind installations; Iceland to see geothermal energy in action; and France to see cutting-edge smart grids. In the U.S. she has visited and reported about bioenergy power plants in Florida, both large-scale and small-scale hydropower; and multiple wind farms, solar PV, and CSP installations. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Innovate Forum, an online publication that focused on innovation in manufacturing. Prior to that she was the managing editor at Desktop Engineering magazine. In 2008, she won an "Eddy Award" for her editing work on an article about solar trees in Vienna. In 2010, RenewableEnergyWorld.com was awarded an American Business Media Neal Award for its eNewsletters, which were created under her direction. She holds a Master's Degree in English Education from Boston University and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.

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