The facility was the first in Colorado and fourth in the world to receive the Platinum designation under the latest version of the LEED standard. In addition to being one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the state, more than 95 percent of the construction waste was diverted from landfills. It features a 104-kilowatt solar system, and the city is currently reviewing designs to add a storage battery later this year.
Shoot for gold, hit platinum The request for proposals called for the building to achieve a minimum of a LEED Gold rating under the new LEED v.4 standard, which has a more performance-based approach than previous versions. “The architecture went through a lot of iterations—in square footage, budget and so forth—but the specificity of the goals we set for the project in the RFP kept the design and construction team on track,” said John Phelan, Fort Collins Energy Services manager.
The city required the design and construction team to achieve all of the energy and atmosphere points to ensure ongoing performance, and challenged the team in other areas to achieve the certification. The choice to apply LEED v.4 presented the city with some challenges. For example, Phelan recalled that the materials category has new methodology and standards so the updated material data sheets were not always available. “That made it hard for the contracting team to get the necessary documentation,” he explained.
The integrated approach produced some clear triumphs as well. The design team focused on a well-insulated, tight envelope with extensive daylighting, resulting in a building with extraordinary light quality and views. “If you are not in a bathroom or closet, you can see the sky,” Phelan proudly stated.
Sustainability quest continues The Utilities Administration Building is the first phase of an efficient new civic campus planned for Downtown Fort Collins. The master plan calls for the buildings clustered in a two-block area to be heated and cooled by a shared geothermal well field. Designers prepared the new building for that eventuality. It was designed to be able to connect the district heating system, promising an even better energy performance in the future.
Energy isn’t the only kind of performance the city is planning to measure. In an effort to understand the value of indoor environmental quality of this building, occupants have taken pre- and post-construction surveys on their comfort, satisfaction and how they feel about their work environment. Ultimately, annual utility bills are very small compared to the utility’s investment in its employees, explained Phelan. “You can’t lose sight of the fact that you are building for the people who work inside, doing the work that the community wants,” he said.
WAPA congratulates Fort Collins Utilities for another achievement in sustainability. The forward-thinking municipal utility has made great strides in lowering its carbon intensity, and never rests in pursuing more innovative solutions.
The future is here and resistance is futile. Public power utilities of all sizes are facing a new world shaped by technology, customer preferences and changing policies. These changes are most evident in five key areas:
The American Public Power Association wants to help power providers navigate these changes and explore the opportunities this new environment presents. Beginning Aug. 15, a five-part webinar series looks at new initiatives through the experiences of the utilities that implemented them.
APPA recommends this series for general managers, CEOs, senior utility executives, governing boards, policymakers, utility managers, future leaders in policy and strategy and public communications professionals.
Comprehensive agendas You can sign up for webinars individually or register for the full series at a discounted rate. Participants will also get access to recordings and slides of the webinars for future reference or if they miss one. All webinars are scheduled for 12-1:30 p.m. Mountain Time.
Aug. 15 – The Future of Rate Design: Distributed generation and energy-efficiency programs are creating cost-shifting concerns. Catch up on the latest industry rate trends and discover how to move toward stable rate structures that accurately recover costs from all customers. Review the pros and cons of different rate models—time of use, higher customer charge, demand charges and bi-directional billing. Learn how other utilities like yours have created long-term rate plans, selected and implemented new rate designs, and obtained buy-in from board and city council members as well as customers.
Sept. 7 – Community Solar Success Stories: Community solar is becoming an increasingly popular option for utilities that want to increase solar in their generation portfolios and offer this option to customers who cannot install rooftop solar. An industry expert will share experiences, insights and predictions for the future of community solar. Your utility colleagues who’ve launched community solar programs across the country will explain how they made decisions in key areas like program structure, implementation, financing, customer outreach, rates and marketing. They’ll discuss challenges and the secrets to success so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Sept. 26 – Charging Ahead with Electric Vehicles: The price of electric cars is falling, and more fast-charging stations are being installed. The Brattle Group predicts that a steady conversion of vehicles and heating to electricity could possibly lead to a 105-percent increase in electricity demand by 2050. If these new loads start to proliferate in your community, are you ready to support them? Now is the time to plan for EV infrastructure and to make important cost-benefit decisions. Learn about new developments and advances in EVs and how they are impacting the utility industry. Hear about innovative public power EV programs and get insights regarding how to work with customers to spur investment in EVs, develop fair pricing models and plan for potential load growth.
Oct. 12 – Best Practices in Battery Storage: The evolution of energy storage is changing how we produce and consume energy like never before. Technological advances, reduced costs and mandates from regulators have positioned energy storage for unprecedented growth. Get up to speed on where we are and what to expect in the future. Three public power utilities will talk about their award-winning storage projects and the realities of implementation, from selecting a developer and siting to leveraging benefits such as peak shaving and financial impacts. Your pioneering colleagues will help you navigate the bold new path of utility-scale battery storage.
Oct. 26 – Smart Meters for Smart Solutions: Learn from utilities that have installed advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Gear up for the real-world challenges and understand how other utilities like yours are using AMI and integrating with other technologies. Understand how to fully leverage the benefits of smart meters — to predict load and usage, implement time-of-use rates, respond better to outages, assess the need for system upgrades and offset peak demand charges. Gather best practices on transitioning rate structures, educating customers and soliciting feedback.
Registration information You can sign up for the entire series or register for each webinar individually. Individual webinars cost $99 for APPA members and $199 for nonmembers. Register for all five webinars for $395 for APPA members or $795 for nonmembers, a discount equivalent to one webinar.
Source: American Public Power Association, 7/10/17
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 enlisted the University of California Riverside as a research partner to discover more about solar-plus-storage capabilities. Imperial Irrigation District 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 and Eon 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 (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 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 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 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.
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?”. 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”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 KSV. 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.