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June 26, 2015 | The Grid of the Future

An in-depth exploration at the Utility of the Future Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C.

A solar panel during a utility-focused forum is always assured to get interesting. During the Utility of the Future Leadership Forum, our panel discussed what impact solar and solar + storage may have on the future energy grid and the utilities that have traditionally operated the grid and supply. Does the utility death spiral exist? What role does storage have in the disruption? Why don’t more solar installations tilt the system facing towards the west? These were some of the highlights covered by the diverse panel which, in addition to me, included a storage CEO, a residential solar executive, and a Hawaii Electric Company executive.

Discussing the utility death spiral

The utility death spiral has become the buzzword surrounding a grid with more renewable energy. Referring to solar as the cause for the end of the energy grid overstates the impact that distributed generation has on electric utilities, especially given the opportunity for demand growth through EVs, smart homes, and more consumer electronics that constantly need energy. While solar may create small power plants on the roofs of homes and businesses, the grid will become more stable and provide energy where it is needed more quickly. The panel did talk about the current cases at the public commissions that regulate the energy companies that push for fixed fees to solar users. Fixed fees often cause the financial case for grid defection to improve and could result in unexpected side effects.

Introducing energy storage to solar homes and businesses

While the Tesla Powerwall gets the majority of the news attention, there are many companies that have advanced the home energy storage segment. Homeowners typically focus the financial value proposition by shifting energy from high cost on-peak rates to shoulder or off-peak rates. Businesses also have energy storage potential, especially combined with solar. Many businesses pay expensive demand charges that adjust based on the highest capacity demand in a 15- or 30-minute window. Combined with time-of-use solar rates, the shifting of energy can generate financial value through lower operational expenses.

Creating the right pricing transparency

The studies have come out saying that solar should face west to eliminate the duck curve which represents the disconnect between peak energy consumption and peak solar energy production by most grids. Facing solar panels to the west would increase the energy production during late afternoons and therefore flatten the duck curve. Getting energy companies to create value for the grid operators is simple: create a financial structure that rewards the benefit generated for the grid and ratepayers. While facing panels west will lower the overall production, it could generate a better financial return for homeowners and businesses that are rewarded for becoming a valuable part of the energy sector

The panel presented a great opportunity to have a discussion about the exciting solar industry and how we interact with the utility sector. At the start of the panel we polled the audience and saw a nice percentage of the audience seeing the potential for 100% renewables on the grid, which shows the potential for everyone if we work together. Through policies like net energy metering, solar and utilities are already generating hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits for the grid and all ratepayers regardless if they have solar on their own home or business. With community solar, the grid will soon present the option for renters and apartment owners to go solar as well. The grid of the future will look different for sure, but working together it will be cleaner, more stable, and reliable.

Yann Brandt serves as the Global Head of Marketing & PR and the VP of Sales U.S. at Conergy. Brandt is also the chief storyteller of SolarWakeup.com.