For years, most utilities have operated quietly, keeping the grid humming along while providing reliable and affordable electricity. That system has served us well.
Today, transformational change is sweeping through the power sector, challenging utilities to not only provide energy, but also to manage a grid where customers are generating their own electricity, and using and saving energy in many different ways. All of this is putting pressure on traditional utility assumptions and practices, but also—for the willing—opening doors to explore innovation.
The Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO, the state’s transmission company) demonstrated such innovation recently when it began a process to explore solutions to many of the questions it’s facing: How should the company deal with transmission limitations that constrain, in the northern tier of the state, its ability to move across the grid all the solar and wind power being produced? How can VELCO operate the grid more flexibly in an environment where even more distributed resources will come on line?
“We want to have a dialogue about how we solve these challenges,” VELCO president and CEO Tom Dunn said during the recent stakeholder meeting.
VELCO is getting out ahead of this challenge and, working through an existing stakeholder process known as the Vermont System Planning Committee, is soliciting creative thinking from a wide range of interested parties. More than 100 people participated in the first meeting in this effort in July, including retail utilities, system operators, clean energy industry representatives, clean energy NGOs, and others. There seemed to be a collective understanding of many of the factors affecting VELCO. Importantly, participants did not dispute the importance of the state’s climate goals, nor did they question the speed with which the power sector is changing.
Across the country, stakeholder processes are helpful in addressing changes impacting the power sector. Examples include the Reforming the Energy Vision, or REV, process in New York, and Rhode Island’s creative groundwork that led to the Rhode Island Power Sector Transformation Initiative (and a resulting Public Utilities Commission order). In New Hampshire, a stakeholder process on grid modernization recently culminated in a report and recommendations filed with the NH Public Utilities Commission. Maryland has conducted a broad and extensive grid modernization docket, PC-44, with six separate workgroups. In addition, there are many instances of energy efficiency collaboratives around the country.
“We want to have a dialogue about how we solve these challenges,” VELCO president and CEO Tom Dunn said during the recent stakeholder meeting. “I am an optimist. Over the short term, we have a difficult problem to solve. Longer term, we will get there.”
Processes like VELCO’s and others may represent a promising tool for managing power sector solutions and ensuring that they are responsive, equitable, and cost-effective.