California utilities discuss concerns at UEF roundtable

An Energy Services Bulletin story last month looked at the results of a Utility Dive survey You are leaving WAPA.gov. that asked power providers what their biggest concerns were. This month, several California utilities—including many WAPA customers—gathered at the Utility Energy Forum You are leaving WAPA.gov. (UEF) Pre-Forum Roundtable to talk about the issues that kept them up at night.

Because of their potential as a revenue source and demand response tool, electric vehicles were a running topic at the UEF Pre-Forum Roundtable.

Because of their potential as a revenue source and demand response tool, electric vehicles were a running topic at the UEF Pre-Forum Roundtable. (Photo by DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy)

The UEF program committee asked utility and government representatives to weigh in on the topics they wanted to discuss in the exclusive session dedicated to those groups. Not surprisingly, the responses reflected California’s unique situation, even as they echoed the findings of the Utility Dive survey.

Energy storage
The question that was No. 1 in the minds of survey respondents was, “What is the value of energy storage for customers, utilities and the grid?” It is not hard to connect the dots between energy storage and concerns about distributed energy policy and aging grid infrastructure that ranked high in the Utility Dive survey. But in California, a combination of legislative and market forces have made energy storage specifically a relevant topic.

Most people automatically think about battery systems when they hear energy storage, and six utilities in the state have already installed and are experimenting with that technology. However, thermal storage—using available renewable electricity to heat water or make ice for later use in heating or cooling—is a proven technology in use at eight California utilities. Pacific Gas and Electric has the state’s only pumped storage project, which uses renewable energy to pump water to a higher-altitude reservoir where it is released to generate hydropower when needed.

Utilities and battery manufacturers still have much to learn about storage batteries, from funding and installation to operation and maintenance to best uses for the systems. Riverside Public Utilities You are leaving WAPA.gov. enlisted the University of California Riverside as You are leaving WAPA.gov. a research partner to discover more about solar-plus-storage capabilities. Imperial Irrigation District You are leaving WAPA.gov. installed 30 megawatts (MW) of storage last October. System operators find it valuable for balancing intermittent solar power during weekdays, but also note that it takes 220 tons of air conditioning to control battery temperatures. Maintaining constant battery temperature is crucial to extending the life of batteries. Tucson Electric Power (TEP) chose to lease 10 MW of storage from Next Era You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Eon You are leaving WAPA.gov. as a way of easing through the learning curve. The system supports 40 MW of solar and provides ancillary services for TEP.

So far, the business case for storage has yet to be made because utilities are still discovering the values associated with it. Also, each utility will have to learn how to maximize storage on its own system. Planning and rate design will play a critical role in unlocking the value of the technology. But utilities can’t afford to hang back, as big, energy-intensive businesses like data centers are already investigating going off-grid with their own solar-plus-storage systems. These customers may prove to be important partners for power providers seeking to meet storage mandates.

More to offer
Stagnant load growth appeared in the Top 10 Utility Dive survey results, a harbinger of reduced revenues utilities can expect from distributed generation and storage technologies. California utilities seem to be ahead of the curve in this respect, interested in exploring new business models to grow services and build relationships. Many roundtable participants have begun to create programs and services that offer customers more than kilowatts.

A number of industry surveys indicate that most consumers still rely on their power providers to help them sort out claims about electrical products and services. Utilities can leverage this trust to get customers to take a holistic approach to energy use, installing weatherization and efficient appliances and systems before moving on to renewables.

The City of Palo Alto Utilities You are leaving WAPA.gov. (CPAU), for example, offers comprehensive home audits and free concierge service that customers can call with any question about energy use. The service is just starting to take off as CPAU hones its message and outreach strategy. “Ongoing customer communication is critical, and not just for specific programs,” observed CPAU Key Account Manager Bryan Ward. “The issues are complex and education is tough, but the more customers understand, the more they can make good decisions for themselves.”

When the customer is ready to install a solar array, the utility has a vested interest in making sure the job is done right. Roseville Electric Utility’s Trusted Solar Advisor program has been highly successful in helping its customers make educated decisions about solar installations. The “Solar Guy,” Energy Program Technician David Dominguez, has even become something of a local celebrity. Roseville is considering expanding the program to other services, like electric vehicles and energy storage. The moral of Roseville’s story is that personalizing a program can take it to a whole new level.

EVs, rate design central to discussion
Of course, you can’t have a discussion about new utility services without the subject of electric vehicle charging stations coming up. Roundtable participants represented a number of different approaches to this service. Burbank Water and Power You are leaving WAPA.gov. installs level 1 (standard household) charger outlets on customers’ property and offers a rebate to customers to install a level 2 (240-volt) outlet.

CPAU facilitates permitting and filing for residential and commercial charger installation and for transformer upgrades. Multifamily units, nonprofits and schools are eligible for rebates for chargers, but high-tech businesses in CPAU’s territory didn’t need an incentive to install the technology. The important thing, most agreed, was that utilities need to be involved in pushing out EV chargers, both for the new revenue stream and to ensure effective deployment and implementation.

EVs and technologies like home automation—another behind-the-meter product utilities could offer—lend themselves to load shifting, especially in residential settings. To take full advantage of such demand response strategies, utilities will have to design rates that give customers a reason to participate. The Public Utility Commission of California You are leaving WAPA.gov. has called for robust time-of-use rates, which would present utilities with another customer education challenge. Power providers will also want to make sure that vendors of behind-the-meter services are giving consumers honest and accurate information and appropriate support.

Energy efficiency ain’t easy
The final roundtable issue was one that is relevant across the country, but again with special significance to California: What hurdles are you encountering integrating and managing more energy efficiency in your mix?

In addition to the state getting half of its electricity from green energy by 2030, California buildings must also increase energy efficiency by 50 percent. As any utility program manager can tell you, the more successful you are at reducing your customers’ energy use, the harder it is to find new savings. The overall trend toward higher efficiency standards for appliances and equipment, along with some of the toughest building codes in the U.S., is already making it more difficult to design effective efficiency programs.

Encouraging customers to make energy-efficiency improvements is further complicated by the fact that electricity rates may continue to rise anyway. Consumers don’t generally care about the intricacies of load resource balance or system optimization, issues that resist simple messaging. To make matters worse, third-party vendors rarely bother to explain to their customers how installing a measure will actually affect their home utility bills—if they, themselves, understand.

When the subject is energy efficiency, talk always circles back to flat and falling revenues, something affecting almost everyone on the panel. Sacramento Municipal Utility District You are leaving WAPA.gov. attributes a noticeable decline in sales to building codes. EV charging and electric water heating could help to make up some load, especially since most water heaters in the state are still gas units. But CPAU found few takers for a pilot program offering customers a generous rebate to install electric heat pump water heaters.

Change still only constant
There is still plenty of low-hanging efficiency fruit that utilities have not yet picked, though participants acknowledged that it may be getting more expensive to reach. The “free” electricity from a solar array is a lot more appealing to customers than elusive “savings” from an energy-efficient appliance. It is enough to make utilities wonder if the best days of energy-efficiency programs and incentives are behind them.

And yet, industry research shows a strong correlation between energy efficiency and customer satisfaction. Such programs give utilities a chance to interact with customers in a way they wouldn’t get to otherwise. Board members may continue to support a traditional program that does not contribute much to financial or operational goals because they see the public relations value of it. If utilities are going to phase out traditional energy-efficiency programs, they will need to find other ways keep customers engaged and happy.

The two hours scheduled for the UEF Pre-Forum Roundtable passed quickly and—spoiler alert—we did not resolve our most pressing issues. That is likely to take trial, error and perhaps an appetite for risk that is hard to square with our historic mission of reliability and affordability. But it did remind us that customer relationships must be viewed as part of the solution.

Customer needs point way to utilities’ future

In a serendipitous case of cyber call and response, an energy industry blog recently posed a question that should be nagging all power providers, and another offered an answer that could give utilities hope.

At the Solar Electric Power Association’s Utility Solar Conference in May, Energy Efficiency Consultant Suzanne Shelton posted an essay titled “So why do I need my utility, exactly?”Redirecting to a non-government site Discussions among conference attendees about how best to build, integrate and price solar power seemed to leave the customer’s wishes entirely out of the equation. Coming on the heels of SolarCity/Tesla unveiling its Powerwall battery storage system, that approach struck Shelton as dangerously short-sighted. She conjectured that solar panel/battery storage combinations could become efficient and affordable enough in as little as five years to lead utility customers to ask themselves the question of her title.

Just two weeks later, “Listening for what matters to residential utility customers” Redirecting to a non-government site appeared in Intelligent Utility. The article focused on motivating customers to make energy-efficiency upgrades, but its underlying theme applies equally to the threat of grid defection. To get a customer to replace an inefficient furnace or stay connected to the grid, you must listen to their concerns and offer solutions that address their needs.

Doing business in brave new world
Broadcast television and landline phones tied to homes and offices were once life-changing services that quickly became viewed as necessities. For the most part, people were satisfied with those services and trusted the few—sometimes, sole—providers. Although utilities still enjoy that kind of marketplace (for now), consumers live in a world that offers myriad options and custom plans for other services, and they are starting to cast a skeptical eye toward their power providers.

A Shelton Group study found that 55 percent of consumers are less than satisfied with their utility, and would be open to other options. Tesla is only one of the private companies working on creating those options, and there are plenty of innovators in the energy-efficiency sector, too. It would take only a couple of breakthroughs to turn the much-discussed “utility death spiral” from a distant cloud on the horizon to a looming thunderhead.

The good news is that utilities still have time to get in front of the change curve. Both articles were optimistic about the new business opportunities awaiting utilities that are ready to look beyond the status quo of selling kilowatt-hours (kWh).

New model built on listening
Instead of seeing new technologies that save or generate energy as competition, utilities might consider how these systems meet customers’ specific needs. The IntelligentUtility article offers insight on how to talk to residential customers about saving energy, drawn from a poll by energy and sustainability marketing firm KSVRedirecting to a non-government site Researchers found that different demographics have different motives for making home improvements, a point Shelton frequently makes. Whether it is saving money, controlling home systems, freedom from time-of-use rates or something else, the utility of the future may be one that designs and markets customized equipment and service packages that speak to customers’ values.

All the points in the article are worth taking time to read, but Point 5, where researchers asked people where they get advice on home improvements, has particular resonance. Only 1 percent turned to their electric utility company, and this is where Shelton sees the greatest opportunity.

Despite sometimes bumpy relations with their power providers, people are still confident that when they flip the switch, the light will come on and when they open the refrigerator, the food will be cold. She suggests that by combining their established reputation for reliability with a new menu of customized products and programs, utilities will be able to keep customers even when leaving the grid becomes easier.

According to KSV, listening for what matters among utility customers is the best way to figure out how to connect homeowners with the right messages to get them to make efficiency upgrades. It is also the key to building the trust necessary to long-term customer loyalty, something no technology can duplicate or replace.

Source: Shelton Insights, 5/5/15; IntelligentUtility, 5/18/15