The utility business may seem dry and matter-of-fact to consumers, but those in the business know it is a rollercoaster ride. To keep the lights on and the electricity affordable, power providers must balance a host of competing demands: renewable portfolio standards, carbon regulations, state mandates, federal mandates, customer desires, environmental concerns, new technology, aging infrastructure. The only way to keep all the plates spinning is to think ahead, and that is where Energy Services comes in.
Energy Services exists to facilitate the resource planning that Western’s firm power contracts require. Firm power customers must complete a comprehensive integrated resource plan (IRP) every five years, along with annual updates. “That may sound like a lot of reports,” acknowledged Energy Services Manager Ron Horstman, “but circumstances change so quickly in this industry, a business plan can easily be out of date in 12 months or less. It was true in 1992 when congress passed EPAct, and it is doubly so today.”
More than good idea, it’s law
EPAct, the Energy Policy Act of 1992, established the IRP requirement to ensure that Western firm power customers are using their federal hydropower allocations efficiently. Also, it encourages utilities to engage in long-term planning, a process that benefits any business, regardless of size, location, regulatory environment and a host of other influential factors. “Low-cost hydropower from federal dams is crucial to keeping the nation’s electricity supply affordable, especially for small towns and rural communities,” Horstman pointed out. “Our rivers are among the nation’s greatest resources and they belong to the general public. Western has a responsibility to protect the health of those waterways and to make sure that the greatest possible number of public utilities have access to it.”
In 1995, Western adopted the Energy Planning and Management Program (EPAMP) setting out the IRP requirements and launching the Power Marketing Initiative (PMI) for marketing long-term firm hydropower. The PMI provides resource pools of power that Western can allocate to new customers.
Not only does resource planning extend the availability of federal hydropower, it helps utilities provide the services their communities want and need to stay vibrant and thrive. But any process that accomplishes so much is bound to be complicated, especially for frequently understaffed small co-ops and municipalities. To provide Western customers with the technical assistance to facilitate effective planning, EPAMP commissioned Western’s Energy Services Program.
The IRP is as much an ongoing process as it is a plan, the point of which is to provide a utility’s consumers with adequate and reliable service at the lowest cost to the system. The definition of the “lowest cost” has been changing as utilities realize that they must consider factors beyond the price tag of a kilowatt. Increasingly, consumers are calling on power providers to address environmental, political, social, economic and technical concerns in their plans as well. These concerns carry their own indirect costs that a more sophisticated public expects the utility to acknowledge and mitigate.
Determining the optimum approach requires the utility to evaluate a range of different resources and strategies on both sides of the meter. The planning process might assess new generating capacity, power purchases, energy conservation and efficiency, co-generation and district heating and cooling applications and renewable energy resources, to name a few.
A certain amount of economic forecasting must be part of the process, too. A community can change a lot in five years, with the population growing or shrinking, businesses coming to the area or leaving and new energy-consuming technologies reaching the mainstream.
Ideally, the utility will reach out to its consumers throughout the planning process to discuss their expectations and share upcoming challenges. This “public participation process” is critical to crafting comprehensive solutions and getting buy-in from consumers on implementing the plan.
An assistance buffet
Since rolling all these considerations into one plan is about as easy as it sounds, our customers need all the information Energy Services can provide and that turns out to be a lot.
- Knowledgeable staff—Our technical assistance menu begins with our people. Customers with questions about their IRPs can contact Horstman or their regional representative.
- Robust website—The Energy Services website is the next stop in the search for guidance, inspiration and industry news. On the home page, visitors will find links to calculators for estimating energy use by air conditioning and heating systems, pool pumps and irrigation equipment. These calculators can help utility program managers make the case to consumers for equipment upgrades, or estimate potential savings from incentive programs. An interactive calendar on the home page displays upcoming workshops, conferences, webinars and other training opportunities focused on energy use.
- Technical services—Washington State University Energy Extension, which created the calculators and the calendar, provides other technical services to aid with planning. Western customers can ask questions about specific technologies or programs to the Energy Experts hotline by calling 800-769-3756, or submitting their question online. Visitors might research successful energy management programs using the Energy Solutions database, or the Utility Options database. Users can also submit their own examples of innovative programs to Utility Options.
- Equipment Loan Program—Western customers who need special equipment to implement a program can borrow it free of charge from the Equipment Loan Program. An equipment loan is a good way to test drive a tool before you buy it or to get the use of an expensive piece of equipment that is not in your utility’s budget this year. Borrow infrared cameras, power meters and more to perform audits on consumer homes and businesses or maintenance on your own system. Bring educational kits and diagnostic tools to customer meetings and schools. A quick visit to the extensive library of training resources will get you up to speed on how to use the tool.
Library on your desktop
Effective planning requires utilities to stay on top of best practices, new technologies and the changing political scene. The Energy Services Bulletin features stories on the latest industry news about reports, policies, education opportunities and—most important—our customers. Western customers are the mother lode of ideas for load management strategies and portfolio diversification.
The blog just scratches the surface, however. Energy Services also publishes guides, fact sheets and collateral material on topics related to energy efficiency. Better yet, we can customize those publications with utility logos so our customers can use them in their consumer education programs.
“Resources,” as the name implies, connects utilities with other agencies that can help them shape their own future. Visitors will find lists of carefully curated links to organizations specializing in energy and water conservation, renewable energy, project funding and incentive programs to name a few.
Putting it in writing
Armed with proven programs, a clear picture of the road ahead and a nimble strategy for navigating it, utilities must overcome one more obstacle in the planning process: Fear of Paperwork.
Yes, customers still have to produce a plan that checks off all the boxes in an arcane-seeming rule, but Energy Services has that covered too. The online IRP Compliance Training walks customers through the process step by step, with clear explanations of what they need to put into their reports. A quick refresher course in the form of IRP and alternative plan checklists comes in handy for seasoned planning pros in charge of annual updates.
More lessons from the trenches can be found in actual customer IRPs, available online. These examples offer a great opportunity to find out what worked for other utilities in your area and how they presented their plan.
There is no replacement for being prepared when you face a long journey down a twisting road of shifting priorities, disruptive and new technologies and unanticipated challenges. Each Western customer must chart its own course, but Western Energy Services is here to point the direction toward the final destination of reliable, affordable and sustainable power.