At Chicago event, an evolving vision for the utility of the future

An unsuspecting person might think they had stumbled into a motivational speech, a New Age gathering or a corporate team-building seminar these days when the popular topic “the utility of the future” is being discussed.

That was the mood at a panel discussion hosted by the Chicago chapter of the Association of Energy Service Professionals this week, featuring Clean Energy Trust new CEO Erik Birkerts, ComEd regulatory strategy director Jane Park and  Rolf Nordstrom, CEO of the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute.

Transmission poles and wires, electricity meters and thermostats might not seem to the layperson to be objects of inspiration, community-building and innovation. But clean energy experts and some utility officials see great technological, financial and human potential just waiting to be unlocked by this once-prosaic infrastructure.

Park described the grid like a Venn diagram, based on three intersecting networks — physical, digital and social — with services driven by the needs and desires of customers who are theoretically constantly interacting with each other and their energy systems.

“As you start to think about your business as a vibrant dynamic 3-D model, you enable yourself to think about more solutions for the customer that go across all three networks,” Park said. “Working together, there’s a real opportunity to build. And it’s really asking ourselves if we have a new energy economy, how are we all going to cooperate and grow and build using the enabling grid that Illinois has invested in.”

She described the “Utility of the Future’s” role in building the “Community of the Future.”

Among various efforts to make the grid smarter, more responsive and more resilient, ComEd is planning to build a Microgrid in the low-income, largely African-American historical neighborhood of Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side. The Microgrid would ensure a stable power supply to a police station, hospital and other buildings in the area, even if there were outages on the larger grid. Plans also call for community solar and electric vehicle charging stations in Bronzeville.

Talk of the Utility of the Future is inextricably linked to the concept of the “utility death spiral.” That’s the idea that as energy efficiency and conservation grow and more people install solar panels, utility demand and revenue goes down. To compensate, the utility raises rates. In response, people take even more measures to reduce their energy use from the grid, creating a vicious circle from the utility’s point of view.

“There’s a massive free-fall in solar module prices,” noted Birkerts, making solar more accessible for individuals, and to utilities that choose to embrace the technology.

Nordstrom called the idea of the utility death spiral “a bit over-wrought,” a “clarion call” from an entrenched utility industry trying to pre-emptively protect its profits and the status quo. While many utilities and some regulatory commissions nationwide have pushed policies hostile to solar distributed generation, Illinois regulators and the state’s utilities are known as being ahead of the curve on the smart grid and energy infrastructure overhaul.

Nordstrom described an experimental initiative run by the Great Plains Institute in cooperation with the utility Xcel and other partners.

The E21 program involves shifting utility rate structures to reward performance, bolstering distributed generation and keeping rates affordable, among other things.

The program is driven by a collective, carefully curated stakeholder process, noted Nordstrom, where “people feel free to think thoughts without losing their job or seeing it in the paper later. … The participants in the process feel like they have reason to collaborate — they have more to gain than to lose.”

Like Park and Birkert, Nordstrom described a future in which utilities are interactive, nimble and flexible, a far cry from the days when “you put iron in the ground and people pretty much had to come,” as Park put it.

“The utility is not just a seller of electrons, but it’s like an energy concierge,” Nordstrom said. “Tell me your energy desires and I’ll try to make them so.”

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