Rocky Mountain Utility Exchange encourages utilities to build bridges

Sept. 19-21
Aspen Meadows Resort
Aspen, Colorado

Admittedly, it is no great sacrifice to visit Aspen, Colorado, in the fall, but the utility industry professionals from Colorado and nearby states who are making the trip Sept. 19-21 are not coming to enjoy the scenery. They are coming for the Rocky Mountain Utility Exchange You are leaving WAPA.gov. to meet their colleagues and industry allies and talk frankly about the triumphs and failures, goals and challenges of their jobs.

Utility program managers will be gathering at the Gold LEED-certified Doerr-Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows Resort Sept. 26-29 to share their ideas for taking customer efficiency programs to the next level.
Utility program managers will be gathering at the Gold LEED-certified Doerr-Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows Resort Sept. 19-21 to share their ideas for taking customer efficiency programs to the next level. (Photo by Randy L. Martin)

This unique forum has been drawing strong crowds of visionaries and idea people from energy and water utilities, nonprofits and technology vendors for 12 years, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Finding opportunity in challenge
The theme for 2018, “United we understand,” emphasizes the collaborative nature of the conference, and holds one key to why it continues to grow in popularity. The theme resonates with WAPA Energy Services Manager Ron Horstman. “The past model for doing business, where utilities rarely talked amongst themselves, let alone with consumers, won’t work in today’s industry,” he said. Horstman is on the RMUE planning committee and WAPA is a sponsor of the event.

“Consumers expect to have more choice in their services, and that includes their electricity. Providing those options to customers creates opportunities for utilities to build and manage load and develop new products, while meeting environmental goals,” Horstman went on. “But the industry is going to have to communicate with their customers, their communities, equipment vendors and other power providers to realize those opportunities.”

The communication begins Wednesday morning with the Utility and Government Agency Roundtable. Representatives from those entities will share the topics they would most like to discuss and the one thing they would most like to learn during the exchange. Following a break, industry allies are free to join the discussion. This roundtable is for people who are not ready to make a formal presentation but definitely have something to talk about.

Highlighting industry trends
The agenda shifts into high gear following lunch. Opening keynote speaker Ann Dougherty of market research firm Illume Advising You are leaving WAPA.gov. will be asking utilities to look at their own marketing efforts and question whether they are positioned to innovate. This will be Dougherty’s first time speaking at the RMUE.

The State of Energy Consumers Today will be presented by another newcomer, Nathan Shannon of Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative.You are leaving WAPA.gov. Shannon will draw on Smart Energy’s 2017 research projects for insights into what today’s consumers want and real-life examples of consumer engagement successes.

The rest of the day’s presentations read like a laundry list of trends that have morphed into looming challenges: utility-led distributed solar programs, climate action plan development, collaborations to expand utility programs’ reach and beneficial electrification. You will learn how other power providers have engaged, rather than resisted these issues to build successful programs.

Digging deeper
Thursday morning, RMUE continues with variations on a theme (working together). Sessions examine programs and initiatives that integrate customer experience and community input. Consumers are clearly no longer content to passively accept the electricity coming down their wires. Environmental concerns are pushing them to demand more options and new technology is giving them the power to take more control of their energy use. Hear from utilities and their partners that abandoned the old model of a one-way relationship to find ways to harness efficiency as a resource, manage loads more effectively and help their communities fight and mitigate climate change.

In the afternoon, the agenda splits into dual tracks, giving you the chance to delve into topics in more detail with smaller groups. See if you can identify the subtext. In the first set of tracks, you can explore either customer engagement (communicating with customers) or the technology of the internet of things (communicating with customers through smart devices). The final dual-track sessions look at energy as a service, not a product (communicating with customers in a new way) and reaching hard-to-reach customers (communicating with customers who don’t make it easy).

If you are looking for even more detail than the dual-track sessions provide, get ready for the Friday workshops. Choose from three different sessions:

  • Electrifying Transportation: Developing Integrated Charging Networks for Electric Vehicles – Explore the role of utilities and government in electrifying the transportation sector.
  • Customer Experiences Workshop: Journey Mapping – Customer journey mapping provides a framework that can break down departmental barriers that limit a program’s potential. Each workshop participant will represent a different contributor in “our” utility during the workshop.
  • Community Goals Meet Utility Realities: Developing Best Practices for an Evolving Landscape – This facilitated discussion is an opportunity for local government and utility leaders to communicate directly about understanding and advancing community renewable and energy efficiency goals.

Keep talking—to each other
As past attendees will tell you, the sessions are only half of what makes the RMUE such a great conference. Great speakers may bring in attendees, but networking opportunities and relationship building bring them back year after year.

The receptions keep conversations going after the end of the day in a casual atmosphere. The Wednesday night networking event is built around a poster session that allows you to learn more about products, services and programs that might fit into your operations. It also includes heavy hors oeuvres if you want to make a meal of it, rescue animals for the kids and this year, ice-breaker games. This is a family-friendly event and family members can attend for the friendly price of free.

Thursday night, the RMUE goes off-campus to the town of Aspen and the historic Hotel Jerome.You are leaving WAPA.gov.

Every refreshment break and meal offers you a chance to ask speakers and colleagues questions, to bounce ideas off other sharp minds and to load up on high-quality calories. Breakfast, lunch and break snacks are included in the price of registration, and the food is terrific.

Details, details…
Since the food is so abundant and delicious, you may want to pack your comfortable “business casual” attire—the RMUE is a “no-tie zone.” Those staying at the Aspen Meadows Resort also might want to pack their exercise gear as well, to take advantage of the onsite Aspen Health Club.

The Aspen Meadows RMUE room bloc has filled up, but overflow lodging at the Hotel Aspen and the Molly Gibson Lodge in town is still available. You can also contact Liz Pellerin at Aspen Meadows to get on a waiting list in case there are any room cancellations.

Upper Great Plains taps South Sioux City for Administrator’s Award

WAPA Administrator Mark Gabriel will present WAPA’s prestigious Administrator’s Award to South Sioux City, Nebraska, You are leaving WAPA.gov. Oct. 18 at the Delta Hotels in South Sioux City.  The presentation is part of 2017 National Bioenergy Day, You are leaving WAPA.gov. an event that will be attended by local, state and federal officials and high-ranking industry representatives. Gabriel will also deliver the keynote address, “The Importance of Renewable Energy Diversification,” at Bioenergy Day. The event will also include a tour of the new Green Star Energy You are leaving WAPA.gov. gasifier power plant.

Despite its small size—a population just over 13,000—South Sioux City has consistently delivered innovation along with affordable, reliable power year after year, warranting the honor the award confers on a WAPA customer. But these accomplishments feel almost secondary to the vision that made them happen. South Sioux City is well known among its peers and many other WAPA customers for being exceptionally forward thinking and tenacious at finding and leveraging win-win partnerships.

Leading in renewables
South Sioux City is pursuing clean, low-carbon electricity with a unique mix of projects.

A 2.3-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic array is only the latest example of the town’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. The 21-acre solar park began operation in January and generates the equivalent of 5 percent of the city’s total electricity needs. South Sioux City also recently selected a firm to build 15 MW of new wind power and signed an agreement to begin receiving generation from it in 2018. Both the wind and the solar projects are public-private partnerships.

South Sioux City’s Solar Park: 2.3-megawatt array (1,200 panels) located on a 21-acre solar park south of the city, alongside C Avenue. The array generates enough energy to provide 5 percent of South Sioux City’s electrical needs.
South Sioux City’s Solar Park: 2.3-megawatt array (1,200 panels) located on a 21-acre solar park south of the city, alongside C Avenue. The array generates enough energy to provide 5 percent of South Sioux City’s electrical needs. (Photo by Nebraskans for Solar)

In a region where agriculture and related businesses are the leading industries, biomass represents an energy resource that South Sioux City has captured through different projects. Three major food processing plants divert animal, grain and other wastes to an anaerobic digester that extracts methane from the stream and feeds it into the natural gas pipeline. The nearby Siouxland Ethanol Plant You are leaving WAPA.gov. displaces up to 9 percent of its natural gas needs for ethanol production with landfill gas from the LP Gill landfill.

The Scenic Park campground was the site of a pilot program in 2015, using a gasifier woody biomass system to generate 50 kilowatts of electricity from wood waste from storm damage. The unit was so successful that South Sioux City entered into an agreement with Green Star Energy to build a 3-MW gasifier. The new power plant will take city and industrial waste wood and dead and dying trees destined for the landfill and convert it into electricity.

Another potential project with Green Star Energy shows that South Sioux City has not lost sight of the tried-and-true renewable resources. The partners are seeking funding to build an innovative hydropower generator along the Missouri River that flows through the south end of the city. The run-of-river turbine design resembles a boat dock, would be safe for fish and aquatic animals and could produce enough electricity to save South Sioux City about $450 each day.

Conserve, reduce, manage
Energy innovation in South Sioux City is not limited to developing new resources. Planning and wise use are just as important to creating a cleaner, sustainable energy supply.

When peak demand needs to be curtailed, the city takes a two-pronged approach. First, a major industrial load voluntarily ramps down its demand by 11 percent to save not only its own energy costs but the energy costs for the city as a whole. On the residential side, the municipal utility has placed demand meters into service to control peak demand from air conditioner use. Both strategies have helped the community to contain electric costs.

South Sioux City has performed energy audits on all city buildings and facilities, and made improvements to systems such as lighting and heating and cooling, to save energy.
South Sioux City has performed energy audits on all city buildings and facilities, and made improvements to systems such as lighting and heating and cooling, to save energy. (Photo by Ammodramus)

The municipal utility has performed energy audits on all city buildings and facilities to identify energy-saving opportunities. Improvements included adding variable speed drives, converting street and signal lighting to LED and installing LED office lighting. Energy-efficient heating and cooling measures and practices have also been implemented in city buildings.

To address the need for backup support and electric demand relief during peak times, the city is designing a 5-MW, state-of-the-art natural gas-powered generating station. Excess generation from the unit will be offered to the Southwest Power Pool You are leaving WAPA.gov. markets.

Practicing stewardship
South Sioux City was the first city in Nebraska to implement a paperless city council. In addition to reducing environmental impacts, the approach simplifies the archiving of council activities and makes it easier for the public to access more information. A voice-activated council chamber video recording system allows citizens to access live and archived meetings.

Tree health and sustainability are important to South Sioux City, which has qualified for the Arbor Day Foundation’s You are leaving WAPA.gov. Tree City USA designation for 25 years and earned the Growth Award for 10 years. For the past eight years, the city has planted one new tree for every 30 residents.

Residents enjoy the city’s two community gardens and the more than 200 fruit trees the city planted in 2014. The orchard is part of a facility designed in partnership with the University of Nebraska – Lincoln to provide storage and opportunities for youth outdoor learning activities. The new building is the first compressed laminated timber structure in Nebraska. Ash tree planks salvaged from emerald ash borer kill and milled by the Nebraska Forest Service side the building. The project received the 2017 Community Enhancement Award from the Arbor Day Foundation.

South Sioux City’s extensive trail network earned the first “Bicycle Friendly Community Award” in Nebraska in 2006, and hosts many rides, runs and other events throughout the year.
South Sioux City’s extensive trail network earned the first “Bicycle Friendly Community Award” in Nebraska in 2006, and hosts many rides, runs and other events throughout the year. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Quality of life is part of environmental health too, and South Sioux City actively promotes healthy lifestyles. The city’s extensive network of developed trails earned the first “Bicycle Friendly Community Award” in Nebraska in 2006. The trail system connects to 60 miles of trails in four cities and three states, and hosts many rides, runs and other events throughout the year.

Partners make it happen
Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum and partnership is as critical to South Sioux City’s efforts as vision is. City Administrator Lance Hedquist acknowledges that the city’s success with energy efficiency and renewable energy projects results from the support and trust of the mayor, council and staff who share his passion to make the city a great place to live and work.

South Sioux City’s collective approach to innovation, partnerships, governance and trust would be impressive in a city many times its size. In a small municipality, it deserves recognition: WAPA is proud to honor South Sioux City with the Administrator’s Award.

Great River Energy helps to launch community storage initiative

While the introduction of the Tesla Power Wall was creating a stir in the electricity industry, Great River Energy You are leaving WAPA.gov. and several partners were quietly working to show utilities that they already have storage capacity that most haven’t begun to tap.

Artwork courtesy of Peak Load Management Association
Artwork courtesy of Peak Load Management Association

The Minnesota generation and transmission cooperative had teamed up with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NRECA), Peak Load Management Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (PLMA) and the Natural Resource Defense Council You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NRDC) to reveal the “hidden battery in the basement.”

“That is what the electric water heater is,” declared Great River Member Services Director Gary Connett.

‘Battery’ almost banned
With three decades of experience in load shaping with electric water heaters and more than 100,000 units currently under the utility’s control, Connett knows whereof he speaks. That extensive history with demand response is what led Great River to initiate the study on the storage potential of the common household appliance.

When the Department of Energy was revamping its efficiency standards, Congress was set to ban electric resistance water heaters with a storage capacity of more than 55 gallons. Great River worked tirelessly to overturn the ban, and the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2015 You are leaving WAPA.gov. ultimately included an exception for large water heaters.

“But that experience made us realize that we had work to do to make utilities understand how important this appliance is to their load management strategies,” recalled Connett. “It is even more so, now that we are being asked to integrate more variable resources into the power mix.”

Showing how it’s done
The long fight to save large water heaters also attracted the attention of the NRDC, an unlikely ally, Connett acknowledges. However, the utility and the environmentalists found common ground in the innovative use of water heaters to “store” renewable energy. The NRDC joined Great River, NRECA and PLMA to commission a study by the Brattle Group You are leaving WAPA.gov. economic consultants.

The six-month study evaluated several strategies familiar to Great River, using two types of water heaters—electric resistance and heat pump units—both of which the utility has on control programs. The electric thermal storage strategy involves heating water at night when electricity is cheaper. “And becoming greener over time,” added Connett. “As Minnesota moves closer to its 2025 goal of 25 percent renewables the percentage of green energy in the night time hours only increases.”

Peak shaving is another strategy, which curtails load during times of high demand on a limited number of days per year, usually in four- to eight-hour cycles. Great River has about 45,000 water heaters on its peak shaving program and 66,000 on the thermal storage program. “That’s 20 percent of all the water heaters on our system. How many utilities can say that?” Connett asked.

The study also looked at fast response, a way to provide balancing services in the form of quick load increases and decreases. “This strategy will be tremendously useful as utilities bring more variable generation onto their systems,” said Connett.

Proven right
The Hidden Battery: Opportunities in Electric Water Heating, You are leaving WAPA.gov. (pdf) the report resulting from the study, reinforced what Great River had already learned from years of water heater control. Depending on market conditions, the Brattle research shows that storage-enabled water heating could save the consumer as much as $200 annually. Based on that figure, payback for the appliance, associated control equipment and installation is five years.

The environmental benefits are significant too, as policy—and consumers—increasingly focus on clean energy and energy efficiency. Controlling water heaters not only saves homeowners money, but it reduces carbon dioxide emissions with the right power mix. As Connett noted, being able to shift electricity use to lower-cost generation in off-peak hours can increase the use of renewable resources like wind.

These findings were not so much a revelation as confirmation for Connett. “That validation was pretty exciting,” he admitted. “And now that storage is becoming more important to integrate variable generation, we will continue to move forward with our proven programs.”

Initiative to spread word
Shortly after the release of the report this January, the partnership behind it launched the National Community Storage Initiative to focus attention on opportunities to develop national, regional and local markets for electric storage technologies. American Public Power Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Edison Electric Institute You are leaving WAPA.gov. have added their endorsement to the initiative, too.

Similar to community solar projects, such programs would aggregate controlled residential appliances to build local energy-storage capability. In addition to giving utilities better control of their loads, these fleets could also potentially provide ancillary services. Connett noted that the new generation of “grid interactive water heaters” can be controlled over very short time intervals with nearly instantaneous response. “The market is driving manufacturers to develop smarter water heaters,” he said. “Utilities want more dynamic control, and manufactures are enabling that with Wi-Fi and global technology.”

Water heaters are not the only existing appliances that offer energy storage potential. Great River Energy also controls about 167,000 air conditioners and has 15,000 ceramic-block, electric thermal storage heaters on its system that could contribute storage capacity. “But the beauty of the water heater is that it is a year-round load,” Connett observed.

More smart appliances are in the pipeline, such as electric vehicles and the Power Wall. “There are plenty of opportunities coming up, but we don’t need to wait for new technology,” Connett said. “The water heater is here now, and this type of program is made for co-ops—it is collaborative, economical and innovative. It helps everyone on the system.”

Find out how your utility can get involved in the National Community Storage Initiative. And don’t forget to share your program with Energy Services Bulletin.