Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange a decade strong, growing

Sept. 28-30
Aspen Meadows Resort
Aspen, Colorado

To say that the utility landscape has changed since 2007 is a laughable understatement—new technologies, new regulations, new customer expectations and economic ups and downs challenge our industry like never before. But the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange, You are leaving WAPA.gov. now in its tenth year, provides attendees with a touchstone for the evolution of their customer efficiency programs.

The Doerr-Hosier Conference Center at Aspen Meadows Resort has been the "home" of the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange since 2007. (Photo by Aspen Meadows Resort)

The Doerr-Hosier Conference Center at Aspen Meadows Resort has been the “home” of the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange since 2007. (Photo by Aspen Meadows Resort)

It seems like only yesterday that 92 Colorado utility program staff and allies gathered at Aspen Meadows Resort for the first Colorado Utility Efficiency Exchange. Programmable thermostats were basically timers that controlled your furnace and there was little or no talk of micro-grids or data analytics. Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) were state-of-the-art lighting technology and the centerpiece of many a utility energy efficiency initiatives.

Learning to share
In fact, the event grew out of a meeting UtilityExchange.org You are leaving WAPA.gov. Executive Director Ed Thomas attended at Platte River Power Authority You are leaving WAPA.gov. on the possibility of coordinating a statewide CFL retailer point-of-purchase promotion. Adam Perry, Platte River’s customer services supervisor for energy efficiency, had just moved to Colorado from Oregon where he was accustomed to working with multiple utilities on customer programs. “I thought it was that way across the country,” Perry admitted. “I wondered where Colorado utilities got together to talk to their peers about their programs and collaborate on regional programs. I soon found out that venue didn’t exist.”

The meeting also included Jeff Rice, then utilities efficiency specialist for the city of Aspen You are leaving WAPA.gov.. Thomas asked the two if their utilities would be interested in supporting an event where program managers could exchange ideas on energy-efficiency programs and learn from each other. “The hope was that sharing would lead to regional and statewide partnerships and collaboration,” explained Perry. “Looking back I can say that RMUEE has allowed me to build great friendships and relationships with my utility program peers. Being able to share ideas and our successes and failures in energy-efficiency program design and implementation has really benefitted both me and my utility.”

The city of Aspen became the event host, in no small part because Rice had just received an energy-efficiency mandate and had no idea where to start. Gas utilities were also being required to launch demand-side management (DSM) efforts, and their program managers were equally eager to learn from others. Returning attendees acknowledge that their programs did, indeed, make “progress through poaching.” Jim Dillon, Black Hills Energy senior manager for energy efficiency, has attended several exchanges over the years. “We feel that the ability to collaborate with our peers is instrumental in building a quality energy-efficiency portfolio that serves all customer classes and moves customers down the energy efficiency pathway,” he said.

Attendees, issues have staying power
The event grew, attracting attendees from the wider region, and the name changed in 2011 to Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange to reflect this inclusive approach. This year, more than 120 attendees—many familiar faces—are expected to come together to grapple with underlying questions that are also all too familiar: How do we meet mandates? How do we increase the efficiency of the building stock? How do we educate and engage customers? How do we fund programs? How does new technology fit into the bigger picture?

The agenda puts a 2016 spin on these timeless issues, starting with a round table discussion based on topics suggested in a survey You are leaving WAPA.gov. you can submit in advance (by Sept. 23). Presentations on Wednesday, Sept. 28, focus on teaching customers to take control of their energy use and integrating the most effective approaches to meet aggressive energy-efficiency goals. A case study on a good, old-fashioned municipal lighting upgrade—now with LED [light-emitting diode] technology—wraps up the first day’s sessions.

The popular dual-track schedule on Thursday morning allows attendees to switch between residential- and commercial-focused sessions. On the residential side, speakers will share their experiences designing, financing, marketing and delivering programs to help homeowners save energy. Aspen Utilities Efficiency Specialist Ryland French will talk about the city’s participation in the Georgetown University Energy Prize competition. The commercial track will cover strategies for motivating different types of business customers and ways to increase their satisfaction. The afternoon offers program snapshots and a look at market transformation and financing models.

Bryan Hannegan of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Ben Bixby, energy products director for Nest Labs, You are leaving WAPA.gov. will deliver the keynote speeches. Hannegan, NREL’s associate lab director for energy systems integration, will talk about integrating electricity, fuel, thermal, water and communication networks to achieve a more sustainable society. Bixby’s keynote will explore business models and partnering strategies for utilities.  Sneak Peek Preview webinars were conducted with the keynotes and advisory committee in August and the archived recordings are available on the event home page.

Eat! Drink! Network!
One feature that helps to keep the RMUEE fresh and growing is that as much “exchanging” happens outside the sessions as during. Presentations are where the conversations begin, but they continue, deepen and expand during refreshment breaks, meals and receptions.

Attendees at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange wave their green flags to signal that they will be back next year.

All in favor of going to the 2016 Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange, wave your green card! (Photo by DKeith Pictures)

Wednesday night’s poster reception is like a private presentation where you can question the speaker one-on-one, with a beverage and snack in hand. The Thursday night networking event at the Limelight in Aspen is a chance to mix it up with the rest of the attendees in an even more relaxed setting.

Other things that haven’t changed in 10 years include:

  • The food at Aspen Meadows Resort is still delicious
  • Aspen is still beautiful in the fall
  • Dress is still casual (leave the tie at home)
  • WAPA Energy Services representatives will be there

Yes, the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange gives us a chance to meet with you, our customers, in one place. We catch up on what is happening in your world, answer questions you might have and learn from you. Every year since 2007, we have returned from the RMUEE, impressed with your innovative ideas and commitment to doing the best for your communities. And we look forward to seeing what the next decade brings. See you in Aspen!

Get sneak preview of RMUEE keynote speaker

Update: A preview of the closing keynote by Ben Bixby of Nest Labs has been added Aug. 31, 10:30-11 a.m. MT.

Register You are leaving WAPA.gov. for this free webinar. If you are unable to participate, the recorded webinars will be archived on the RMUEE website. You are leaving WAPA.gov.

Aug. 17
10:30-11:00 a.m. MT

Thinking about joining Energy Services at the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange, Sept. 28-30 in Aspen, Colorado? Good idea! This free webinar gives you the opportunity to discover whether this event is right for you and consider who else in your organization might benefit from attending.RMUEElogo

Bryan Hannegan, associate laboratory director – energy systems integration with National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will speak about “The Challenge and Promise of Energy Systems Integration” as part of the Exchange’s theme of “Where Will Utilities be in 10 Years?” Hannegan leads NREL’s global initiative to optimize links between electricity, fuel, thermal, water and communication networks for a more sustainable society.

Meet Chris Lyles, new Equipment Loan manager

It is with a heavy heart that Energy Services must bid Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann farewell as he moves into a well-deserved retirement. Hoffmann was a tireless champion of our Equipment Loan Program and we will miss his customer service skills, “interesting” theories on how the world works and his tasty vegan recipes (ok, maybe only the Energy Services Bulletin editor will miss the food). The silver lining in this loss is that we gain Chris Lyles, the new Equipment Loan manager.

Chris Lyles, the new Equipment Loan manager, wants to hear your suggestion for tools to add to the Equipment Loan Program.

Chris Lyles, the new Equipment Loan manager, wants to hear your suggestion for tools to add to the Equipment Loan Program.

Learning new business
When Lyles joined WAPA’s Desert Southwest office in 2008, it was the Energy Department veteran’s first utility industry job. He had been working on environmental cleanup on Super Fund sites but wanted a more people-oriented position. “There seemed to be a lot of job opportunities in the field and I liked the idea of working in a stable industry that provided society with an important product,” Lyles recalled.

Working as project manager in charge of transmission line and substation construction gave Lyles plenty of chance to work with people. He had to help facilitate the selection of capital projects that would best meet the needs of WAPA and its customers’ transmission needs. And since such projects affect customers’ rates, he had to explain the need for them to the customers, too. “When people who have been in the business for 40 years are asking you questions about a transmission project, you had better understand the details and have answers for them,” noted Lyles. “It was a real learning experience.”

Fortunately, Lyles is a quick study and has exceptional listening skills, which came in handy when he visited customers in the field. “That is where they really open up and share their concerns about WAPA and about the industry in general,” he said. “Those meetings really helped me to identify projects that could make a positive difference for our customers.”

Growing on job
WAPA Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel was another person who found those one-on-one meetings valuable. When he visited the DSW region, Gabriel often accompanied Lyles on his visits to small utilities. While the administrator was learning more about the specific needs of the region, he was also discovering an employee with exceptional customer service skills. When there was an opening at WAPA headquarters in Lakewood, Colorado, for an acting chief of staff, Lyles was selected to fill it.

Filling the temporary position gave Lyles the chance to work with WAPA senior management and learn more about WAPA’s broader mission. One thing that impressed him was how diverse our customer base is. “Each region has different needs and each customer is facing different challenges,” he said.

Finding new ways to help
Lyles also came to appreciate the need to maintain our aging grid infrastructure, an area where he sees potential for the Equipment Loan Program to grow. “We have equipment that can be particularly useful for finding problems on distribution systems,” he pointed out. “One of my goals is to make sure our customers know all the different uses for our tools.”

The distribution system is being used differently now than it ever was before, Lyles added, and Energy Services and the Equipment Loan Program can help customers manage those changes. “For example, distributed generation causes back-feed into the system that can potentially lead to power quality issues,” he said. “We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from customers who see a blip on their system, and need help to track down the issue.”

Lyles is looking forward to learning what is important to customers, and one way to do it is to put equipment into the hands of customers who have not borrowed from the program before. “I would like them to get a chance to play with our tools and discover new uses for them,” he said.

That will also help with another goal Lyles has for the program: modernizing the fleet of equipment. “Our equipment inventory should reflect that WAPA understands the changes going on in the industry and that we know how to help our customers deal with them,” he explained.

To that end, Lyles is eager to hear suggestions from customers about tools that could be added to the program. Contact him at 720-962-7249 with your ideas.

Blackouts looming, California speeds battery deployment after Aliso Canyon gas leak

A recent article in Utility Dive You are leaving WAPA.gov. explores the steps California is taking to mitigate the repercussions of the massive Aliso Canyon methane leak in the Los Angeles Basin last October.

Aliso Canyon is a repurposed oil field north of the San Fernando Valley that can store up to 86 billion cubic feet (bcf) of gas to distribute to homes, businesses and power plants. It took owner Southern California Gas four months to plug the leak, leaving only 15 bcf of gas in the field, and now there is a moratorium on further drilling. The loss of the ability and capacity to store gas, as well as the stored gas itself, has created reliability concerns for both gas and electric customers.

Before the natural gas leak last fall, the Aliso Canyon Gas Fields in Southern California could store up to 86 billion cubic feet of gas. The loss of the facility threatens to affect reliability in the region.

Before the natural gas leak last fall, the Aliso Canyon Gas Fields in Southern California could store up to 86 billion cubic feet of gas. The loss of the facility threatens to affect reliability in the region. (Photo by California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services)

The California’s Public Utilities Commission You are leaving WAPA.gov. (PUC) issued a directive in May, freeing up utility funds that could be used to increase energy-efficiency programs. The state’s action plan includes asking electric customers to reduce consumption, expanding demand response programs and calling for revised tariffs to encourage gas shippers to more tightly match supply and demand, thus reducing the need for storage.

Bringing storage online
Fast-tracking plans to build energy storage may be the most intriguing measure state agencies are pursuing to prevent possible service interruptions. In May, the PUC began the process for an expedited procurement solicitation for energy storage that could be in service Dec. 31, 2016.

At the time, San Diego Gas and Electric was already far along on a request for offers to fill its 2016 Preferred Resource Local Capacity Requirement You are leaving WAPA.gov.. The PUC modified its original resolution, which did not mention SDG&E, to help the utility to find projects that could come online by the December deadline.

In the end, SDG&E selected a 30-megawatt (MW), 120-megawatt-hour (MWh) project in Escondido, and a 7.5-MW, 30-MWh project in El Cajon. The locations were chosen to alleviate electric reliability concerns associated with Aliso Canyon.

AES Energy Storage will build both utility-owned projects, and has a long-term service contract with SDG&E covering the first 10 years of operation, to begin before Jan. 31, 2017. The projects will bid into the California ISO market.

The article is long, but is well worth your time to read. If successful, the Aliso Canyon Energy Storage Project would demonstrate a number of aspects of energy storage that utilities elsewhere might apply in their own regions. The circumstances that made the projects possible are specific to California, but utilities should be aware that energy storage offers them another potential tool for delivering reliable service.

Source: Utility Dive, 8/11/16

Upcoming deadlines

IR camera borrowed for classroom, saves energy for university

Western State Colorado University is located in Gunnison, frequently one of the coldest areas in the 48 states.

Western State Colorado University is located in Gunnison, frequently one of the coldest areas in the 48 states. (Photo by Western State Colorado University)

Anyone who picks up an infrared (IR) camera quickly becomes aware of the possibilities of being able to “see” the temperature of objects. Some WAPA customers find that once they borrow a camera from our Equipment Loan Program, coworkers from other departments suddenly appear with ideas for their own projects, as happened at Western State Colorado University You are leaving WAPA.gov. (WSCU).

John Mason, an associate professor of physics in WSCU’s department of Natural and Environmental Sciences, recently borrowed an IR camera primarily for class demonstrations. He heard about it through a colleague who attended an energy fair in Gunnison, Colorado, where then-Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffman had a display table for WAPA.

Showing, not telling
“The camera is great for making abstract concepts concrete to students,” Mason noted. “Take thermally induced electromagnet radiation, for example. Instead of trying to explain it to students, I can focus the camera on a black plastic trash bag, and it shows right through it. Then, I point it at a piece of glass and they can’t see what is on the other side. The students perk right up when I bring out the IR camera,” he added.

Other teachers found uses for the camera, too, but it was in the hands of the WCSU facilities manager that the loan really paid off for the school. “It didn’t take long for word to get to facilities that we had an IR camera, and Bryce [Hanna] showed up asking to borrow it,” Mason recalled.

Gunnison, always one of the coldest spots in the Colorado Rockies, was experiencing a particularly cold winter during the period of the camera loan. Facilities Manager Hanna saw the opportunity to show the administration why Hurst Hall, a building of classrooms, labs and offices, needed a thermal envelope upgrade. The department performed an IR inspection of the building and shared the picture with the insulating contractors to get their input on what measures needed to be taken. “Then we showed the thermal images to the WSCU Sustainable Action Committee to get their approval to fund the project,” he said. “The committee is the ultimate decision maker in terms of how—and whether—sustainability funds get spent.”

Finding, fixing
Hurst Hall’s frigid upper floor and frozen water pipes were plenty of proof that the building had a leaky envelope. But the IR camera helped to pinpoint the areas that needed repairs and make the case for investing in the improvements. “The problems are not always where you expect them to be,” Hanna pointed out.

Hurst Hall; containing offices, classrooms and labs; was very much in need of an envelope upgrade.

Hurst Hall; containing offices, classrooms and labs; was very much in need of an envelope upgrade. (Photo by Western State Colorado University)

The light areas of the thermal image show where Hurst Hall is losing heat to air leaks and inadequate insulation.

The light areas of the thermal image show where Hurst Hall is losing heat to air leaks and inadequate insulation. (Photo by WSCU Facilities Management)

The camera uncovered a bad case of “gaposis” just below the roof where the exterior wall and insulation didn’t quite meet the insulated roof. The opening allowed heat to escape while an uninsulated steel tube vented cold air into the building. Adding spray foam insulation to the gap raised the temperature by almost 40 degrees in some places. “Filling the big holes also helped us to locate the smaller leaks, which are just as important to sealing the building envelope,” noted Hanna.

The results from the project are still coming in, as the heating system controls must be fine-tuned to adjust to the tightened thermal envelope. However, a normalized comparison of 2015 gas bills to 2016 indicated that the building used 20 percent less gas during the coldest month. Hanna explained that because of the low cost of natural gas, the return on investment for the upgrade is practically nonexistent. “We did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “Not to mention, the building occupants are a lot more comfortable.”

Which water pump would you rather touch? Thermal image showing pump on right clearly overheating.

Which water pump would you rather touch? This thermal image clearly shows the pump on the right overheating. (Photo by WSCU Facilities Management)

The lighter the window, the greater the heat loss. Windows on the bottom floor are new. The dark mound below the windows is snow.

The lighter the window, the greater the heat loss. Windows on the bottom floor are new. The dark mound below the windows is snow. (Photo by WSCU Facilities Management)

Safe, efficient maintenance
As impressive as big upgrade projects are, keeping equipment and systems in good working order is even more important over the long term. While Hanna had the camera, he used it to detect and correct mechanical and electric issues. “If you are having a problem with a hard-to-reach piece of equipment like an inline water pump, you can see what is happening right away on a thermal imager,” he explained. “If you are dealing with an electrical short, you don’t want to be handling it without knowing if it is live or not.”

Instead of wasting a thousand words on the importance of efficient windows, Hanna simply compared a picture of recently installed windows to old windows. “We could see an immediate difference between the two,” he declared. “The old windows appeared as bright in the picture, indicating high heat loss. The new windows were much darker, showing that less heat was escaping them. In some spots the new windows were even out-performing the stucco wall around them.”

Many lessons to learn
This story offers more than one take-away besides the obvious, “Infrared cameras are awesome!” You might conclude that customer outreach can pay off in unexpected ways, or that facility managers can be a utility’s greatest ally. You may decide that customer service representatives and key account managers need to take an IR camera along when they visit customers.

The Equipment Loan Program can help with that last one. Contact Chris Lyles, 720-962-7249, to reserve a camera for your next customer meeting or public event. And don’t forget to tell us your story afterward.

Free webinar discusses valuation of distributed energy resources

Aug. 17
12 p.m. MT

As distributed energy resources (DER) become more prevalent, states across the country are seeking to design consistent and durable valuation and compensation schemes for these resources. What’s a Watt Worth? presents three novel approaches to valuing distributed energy resources (DER) from California, New York and Texas. Speakers will cover locational valuation of DER and DER in wholesale markets, locational net benefits analysis of distribution resource plans and distribution-level markets for DER.

The Distributed Generation Interconnection Collaborative (DGIC) aims to share knowledge on distributed photovoltaic interconnection practices and innovation. Register You are leaving WAPA.gov. for this free webinar and sign up to receive quarterly updates on DGIC activities.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 8/8/16

Free webinar explores potential of carports for community solar

Aug 18, 2016
11:00 AM MDT

The Community Solar Value Project You are leaving WAPA.gov.  will present Making Solar Carports Happen, You are leaving WAPA.gov. a free webinar, on Aug. 18 at 11 a.m. Mountain Time.

Carports add value to parking spaces by providing shade and shelter, and they are usually located in areas with wide-open solar exposure and easy grid access. This could make the structures an excellent design option for community solar gardens that also promote grid-managed electric vehicle charging.

Learn more about all the benefits, as well as the pricing challenges, associated with solar carports and shade structures by joining the CSVP August webinar. Presentations will feature two leading solar carport providers and cover highlights from CSVP’s solar carport market update.

Making Solar Carports Happen is part of a free webinar series that launched June 30 with Can Regulation Make Community Solar Better? Past webinar presentations are available in the CSVP library, along with presentations from other events related to community solar. Upcoming webinars include:

  • September 29 – Community Solar Plus Storage Solutions
  • October 27 – Smarter Procurement for Community Solar Programs

Watch Energy Services Bulletin for more information about registration.

The Community Solar Value Project represents leading energy thinkers and do-ers, ready to “make community solar better,” from both the sponsoring-utility and customer perspective. Focusing on strategic solar technologies, siting and design, and on integrating companion measures, such as demand-response and storage, into program designs, CSVP aims to address solar variability and minimize costs for service and distribution. Developing the market for the community solar model is also a goal of the project.

Extensible Energy, LLC, a San Francisco-area energy consulting and analytics firm, leads the project, with support from Cliburn and Associates, LLC, Olivine, Inc., and Navigant Consulting. WAPA customer Sacramento Municipal Utility District You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Public Service of New Mexico are among the utilities participating nationwide. The project is powered by the Department of Energy SunShot Initiative under its Solar Market Pathways program. Sunshot is also a sponsor of the webinar series.

Source: Community Solar Value Project, 7/28/16

Federal, state, private agencies partner to increase solar access nationwide

The Obama administration unveiled a new cross-government partnership this week to increase access to solar power, promote energy efficiency and build a more inclusive workforce. In collaboration with state agencies, the Clean Energy Savings for All Americans Initiative aims to bring 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar to low- and moderate-income families by 2020.

DOE wants your ideas about how to structure and evaluate its Community Solar Challenge. Public comment is due Aug. 2.

DOE wants your ideas about how to structure and evaluate its Community Solar Challenge. Public comment is due Aug. 2. (Artwork by DOE SunShot Initiative )

The new program builds on the successes of the Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative, introduced in 2011. SunShot works with private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, state and local governments and national laboratories to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with conventional energy sources by 2020.

DOE is joining with the departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Veteran’s Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency to make choosing solar an easier and more affordable option. The key components of the initiative will unlock financing mechanisms, bolster technical assistance for states and communities, drive innovation and scale up workforce training. These measures will enable more low- and moderate-income Americans to take advantage of the jobs that come with a transition to clean energy.

Accompanying executive actions
In addition to the launching Clean Energy Savings for All Americans, the administration is implementing several executive actions to support American communities in deploying renewable energy.

Programs to scale up Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, financing will allow homeowners to make energy improvements immediately and pay back the cost over time through their property taxes. Increased technical assistance will make it easier for low-income households to access hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for renewable energy investments. DOE and HUD will work with national laboratories to track the progress of deployment of solar energy systems on targeted households. 

DOE is developing a Community Solar Challenge that will award teams in dozens of communities up to $100,000 to develop innovative models to increase solar deployment and cut energy bills, in particular in low-income communities. Teams will build local capacity around the legal, technical, financial and administrative aspects of community solar programs and projects. The DOE SunShot Initiative has released a request for information to gather feedback and information on the structure of challenge. The deadline is Aug. 2.

The initiative also includes the sharing of best practices on how to finance and how to overcome barriers to creating healthier communities. Over the next months, summits on clean energy savings, community solar project financing and funding resources and training for vulnerable communities will convene across the country. You can keep up with these events and funding opportunities by subscribing to SunShot email updates newsletter.

Developing solar workforce
Solar jobs are growing 12 times faster than the rest of the economy, and the Obama administration hopes to train an additional 25,000 workers by 2020. To reach that goal, DOE has teamed up with the Solar Foundation to create the Solar Training Network. The network is designed to connect training providers, employers and job seekers to supply the skilled solar workforce the industry needs to continue to grow.

DOE is also implementing a community and workforce investment program to both create new employment opportunities and train low-income West Baltimore residents for jobs in the solar industry. The initiative will explore options to expand access to solar for renters and local individuals in the Baltimore area.

States, private sector get on board
More than 120 private, state, local and philanthropic sectors in 36 states are pledging to support Clean Energy Savings for All Americans. These new commitments represent $287 million in investment, and nearly 280 megawatts (MW) of community solar and low- and moderate-income solar deployment. Combined with previous commitments, this brings the total amount of commitments secured to more than $800 million in investment and more than 491 MW of solar power.

Rural electric cooperatives are among the partners committing to install community solar projects by the end of 2017. WAPA customer Sacramento Municipal Utility District You are leaving WAPA.gov. is among the more than 90 member-owned, not-for-profit power providers in 25 states that have brought online community solar projects in the last year.

Utilities hoping to bring the benefits of renewable energy into their communities can join the National Community Solar Partnership. You can learn more about starting a utility community solar program from Community Solar FAQ and find information to encourage solar homes in your territory with Solar Energy Resources for Homebuilders.

Source: DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy via Green Power News, 7/19/16

Community solar garden captures innovation award for Moorhead, Minnesota

Moorhead Public Service You are leaving WAPA.gov. (MPS), based in Minnesota, recently received the Energy Innovator Award from American Public Power Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. for giving residents what they want: clean solar power.

Moorhead Public Service installed its community solar garden near its first renewable energy systems, two wind turbines.

Moorhead Public Service installed its community solar garden near its first renewable energy systems, two wind turbines. (Photo by Moorhead Public Service)

The award-winning, 40-kilowatt (kW) Capture the Sun Community Solar Garden went online in 2015, after public outreach indicated strong support for more solar options. Moorhead customers pay for the power output of one of the 144 non-rotating, photovoltaic (PV) panels that make up the array. The value of the energy generated by the panels is prorated annually in the form of bill credits to participating customers. MPS is responsible for ongoing maintenance and delivering the energy to subscribers’ homes and businesses.

“The point of the gardens is to allow people who don’t have the ability to have solar panels at their home, to help feed solar energy into the grid,” said MPS Energy Services Manager Dennis Eisenbraun. “That fits the criteria for the Energy Innovator Award very well.”

The award recognizes utility programs that demonstrate advances in the development or application of creative, energy-efficient techniques or technologies. Judges also look for programs that improve service to electric customers or projects that increase the efficiency of utility operations or resource efficiency. Transferability and project scope in relation to utility size are also considered. APPA presented the award during its annual National Conference in June in Phoenix, Arizona.

Keeping customers satisfied
Although support for clean energy—especially the home-grown kind—is strong among consumers, many homes and businesses are not in the position, literally or figuratively, to install solar. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, about three-quarters of all buildings are not suitable for a solar array due to shading, roof orientation, structural issues and other concerns.

Shared solar, however, has the potential to greatly increase consumer access to solar PV, a fact not lost on MPS customers. “We did an initial survey to gauge customer interest last year, and then held a couple of public meetings,” Eisenbraun recalled. “Finally, we sent out a mass mailing seeking a commitment to the project and there was an overwhelming positive response.”

Moorhead residents, utility employees, city officials and contractors attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Capture the Sun, Oct. 6, 2015. MPS is planning a ceremony for the second phase of the solar garden this coming October.

Moorhead residents, utility employees, city officials and contractors attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Capture the Sun, Oct. 6, 2015. MPS is planning a ceremony for the second phase of the solar garden this coming October. (Photo by Moorhead Public Utilities)

Capture the Sun quickly attracted more subscribers than it had panels to accommodate them. “We knew before we finished building the 2015 project that it was only going to be ‘Phase One,’” said Eisenbraun. “Between the waiting list and a second mass mailer sent earlier this year, we had enough support to go ahead with another array in 2016.”

Poised for success
The second phase of Capture the Sun will be fully subscribed when it goes online this fall. MPS is planning a public dedication, Oct. 4, during Public Power Week.

The success of the solar garden is not surprising, given that Moorhead residents are already familiar with the concept of community renewable energy development. MPS built two wind turbines, one in 1999 and another in 2001, and more than 800 customers signed up to support the Capture the Wind program with a small green power tariff on their monthly electricity bills. “Our first foray into renewable energy was a resounding success,” Eisenbraun acknowledged. “The turbines were a great public relations tool and they reached payback in just 11 years, four years ahead of schedule.”

Going local
Like the wind turbines, Capture the Sun is a distinctly local project that keeps control in the community and the economic benefits within the region. MPS self-financed the solar garden with a combination of subscriptions and funds shifted from its renewable system incentive program. “We didn’t have as many individual customers installing systems as we hoped,” explained Eisenbraun. “So instead of leaving that money on the table, we decided to use it to give our customers another option.” A very popular option, as it turned out.

Solar installers from Enterprise Sales mount PV panels on a rack. The project brought attention--and business--to the regional construction company.

Solar installers from Enterprise Sales mount PV panels on a rack. The project brought attention–and business–to the regional construction company. (Photo by Moorhead Public Service)

MPS also chose Enterprise Sales Co. You are leaving WAPA.gov. from nearby Valley City, North Dakota, to build the project. The website states that Enterprise is “more than a contractor,” but Eisenbraun was surprised to learn that the company builds solar arrays. “I was only familiar with them as grain bin builders,” he admitted. “But they came in with the best price and their project manager worked everything out to the finest detail.”

At Moorhead Public Service, bringing recognition to a local business, self-financing community renewables projects and giving customers what they want is not so much about innovation as it is about doing the right thing. “We didn’t build Capture the Sun because of any mandates,” Eisenbraun pointed out. “We did it because it was a great idea and our customers thought so, too.”

And that kind of thinking deserves an award.