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Clearing Up / Bearing Down

[July 5, 2019 / No. 1909]

Glimpses of Energy Innovations at Two Recent NW Gatherings

SUMMARY: A peek at energy innovations came at two late June gatherings, one in Portland, the other in Seattle. Together, they underscored the evolutionary trends toward a more decarbonized, distributed and digital energy future, along with increasing flexibility and customer choice.

Glimpses of energy innovations, real and prospective, were on display at two recent events I attended.

These looks collectively underscored shifts toward a more decarbonized, distributed and digital energy future, along with increasing flexibility and customer choice.

And while the exact configuration of the coming energy system remains to play out, I was struck at these gatherings by a sense of budding possibilities for change.

Those were big-picture takeaways from the Smart Grid Northwest Annual Members Meeting and Grid Forward Launch Event, June 21 in Portland, and the CleanTech Innovation Showcase, June 24 in Seattle.

Smart Grid Northwest Morphs to Grid Forward

The June 21 gathering at Portland General Electric's World Trade Center 2 marked the debut of Grid Forward.

Formed in 2010 as Smart Grid Oregon and more recently known as Smart Grid Northwest, this nonprofit trade group sports a new name and a "refined purpose," according to a June 19 post by CEO/Executive Director Bryce Yonker: "We provide information, community, and expertise to help leaders create pathways for electric grid modernization via advanced technology, policy progress and business innovation."

The organization remains "all about the grid: central, edge and all that is connected to it, the whole energy infrastructure landscape," he wrote. While the grid remains mostly centralized, it now features growing digitalization and user options, and "blurring" between transmission and distribution.

I later spoke with Yonker, who said it is "real important for us as a group to stake a claim to the fact we are for and working with people on the grid," thus keeping grid in its name. "We're still here supporting this central infrastructure."

Grid Forward was the name of a conference the organization put on in October 2018, providing "more of a cross-cutting platform" for discussions around advanced technologies, according to Yonker. He also noted the new moniker is geography-neutral; the organization retains a regional focus, but is "looking to engage folks" throughout the western regions of the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile, Yonker continued in his post, expectations for the electric grid are "changing dramatically," moving beyond reliability and cost to also encompass resiliency, decarbonization, added renewables and electric vehicles, among other issues.

And while technology remains foundational, grid innovation also requires advances in regulation, business models, market structure and culture, he wrote.

Grid Forward seeks to "promote and accelerate grid innovation" by encouraging investments in new technologies and models for grid management; moving from demonstrations to larger-scale deployments; working on regulatory and business models for grid management; and supporting "cultural change" in navigating "evolving energy ecosystems."

Grid Forward's membership, advisory council and June 21 attendee lists indicate its broad scope: utilities (investor-owned utilities, publics and BPA); technology providers; consultancies; big corporations (Amazon, Google and General Electric); government laboratories and energy agencies; universities; financiers; and a range of other private- and public-sector stakeholders.

That diversity is "purposeful," Yonker told me. Grid Forward wants to "help facilitate those parties to come together" behind the goal of "collectively trying to push this grid ahead."

June 21 sessions highlighted elements of the Grid Forward agenda.

On the technology front, Chief Policy Officer Anne Hoskins of Sunrun touted solar-plus-storage, and cited a projection that residential storage is expected to triple from 2019 to 2020, and triple again from 2021 to 2023. She also noted a study finding that residential solar-plus-storage could provide enough capacity to replace one of three natural gas-fired peaking plants targeted for shutdown in Los Angeles by 2030.

Larry Bekkedahl, Portland General Electric VP for grid architecture, integration and systems operations, said "digitalization is critical" for the electric industry. He repeated a thought he heard elsewhere that it "needs to be the same level of sophistication as Silicon Valley."

Flexibility is becoming a watchword for the industry, noted Ryan Fedie, BPA energy engineering manager. One example is a recent major revamp of BPA's available transfer capability that provides "way more flexibility" on its transmission system.

Flexibility also applies in planning, Fedie and others said. For example, BPA now looks at meeting grid needs through a broader framework, including non-wires alternatives, as it did in shelving the proposed I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project in 2017. This approach also examines energy efficiency, demand response and storage options, said Lee Hall, BPA distributed energy resources manager, speaking from the audience. Not every outcome will be wire-less, but Hall said the process is "cross-agency" and predicated on cost-effectiveness.

Planning for distributed resources is becoming commonplace among utilities, Bekkedahl said.

And on the flexibility-related topic of grid-interactive buildings, BPA's Fedie channeled a former president: "Ask not what the grid can do for your building, but what your building can do for the grid."

The next panel raised examples of organizational flexibility and collaboration.

Carl Imhoff, who manages the electric infrastructure market sector at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, outlined efforts within the Department of Energy in "breaking down barriers" among the likes of energy efficiency, renewable energy and grid specialists and to "look for innovations at the seams" of those topics.

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Curt Kirkeby, fellow electrical engineer of technology strategy at Avista Utilities, described an "innovation station" initiative at the IOU launched five years ago at the behest of Heather Rosentrater, now Avista's VP of energy delivery. It brings together 25 Avistans from across the utility to examine innovative ideas and bring promising ones to funding decision-makers at the utility. This has led to Avista's electric-vehicle and community-solar programs, and 12 patent applications, he said.

The key underlying question is: "How might we . . . ?", as opposed to reflexively saying no, according to Kirkeby.

Later in the session, he acknowledged regulatory and competitive considerations that can limit information-sharing and collaboration among stakeholders, but he hopes Grid Forward can foster shared knowledge. (Yonker later said education—in group settings such as June 21 and other events, as well as behind the scenes—remains a "pillar" of the organization.)

The day's final session explored regulatory considerations, with Oregon PUC Commissioner Letha Tawney and consultant Alison Silverstein, a former high-level state/federal regulatory staffer.

Tawney called public safety a central electric-sector value that fosters a "very intense compliance culture" and limits utilities from moving faster. Yet with wildfires and cybersecurity, in particular, she noted, "The compliance culture is utterly insufficient to the scale of the risks."

She also described an imperative to "keep equity front and center" and consider the needs of vulnerable populations; 20 percent of Oregon customers struggle to pay electric and gas bills. And they are the ones "most impacted by the conditions and solutions."

Regulators need to balance an interest in driving innovation with the risk of making a "bad bet," which Tawney called "deeply challenging as a regulator."

Thus, the role of utility pilot ventures, said Silverstein, and the importance of flexibility, usability and optionality. "Don't penalize the utility if it can't predict every disaster," she said, and also "be fast on containment of pain."

Silverstein cited an Amory Lovins description of carrots, sticks and sticks painted orange, as different means to influence behavior. She believes the latter is most effective in utility regulation, for example applied in performance-based ratemaking and giving utilities rewards for achieving specified goals.

CleanTech Innovation Showcase

The following Monday, June 24, brought the CleanTech Innovation Showcase to the Bell Harbor International Conference Center on the downtown Seattle waterfront.

Sponsored by the CleanTech Alliance, the event featured sessions, exhibits and meal-time keynotes, of which clean energy was a central aspect. It, too, brought together a broad range of private- and public-sector folks.

Full disclosure: I staffed a Clearing Up marketing table at the Showcase, and also dropped in on numerous sessions to get a sense of clean-energy innovations.

A sampling:

  • CTFusion, a Seattle-based spinoff from the University of Washington, is working on magnetic fusion energy, through reactors sized from 100 MW to 1,000 MW, according to Chief Technology Officer Aaron Hossack. Its goal is to develop a commercially licensable fusion power core by the early 2030s. These reactors could furnish baseload power to complement renewables. (Yes, this is a nuclear technology, but Hossack called fusion "intrinsically safe" with "no risk of meltdown," helium as a byproduct and feasibly sited near load centers.)
  • DWP Energy Solutions, founded in 2017 by Wei Pan, is developing translucent solar panels for greenhouse roofs—essentially a dual-use system to grow crops while generating electricity. Cannabis growing is a potential market, Pan said.
  • Texas-based Southwest Research Institute, founded in 1947 and now a multidisciplinary research anddevelopment nonprofit, applies remote sensing and artificial intelligence in its Smart LEak Detection (SLED) system for finding methane leaks from natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure, according to SwRI research and development manager Maria Araujo. It closes numerous gaps in methane-leak detection, she said.
  • WHYgrene Inc. (note "energy" spelled backward in the latter part of its name) provides "a digital marketplace" for people to "buy, sell, track and trade energy," said CEO/Founder Patrick Phelps. Specifically, it offers an app that "incentivizes customers to balance the [grid] load by installing battery storage and participating in demand response programs," according to the company's written session summary. His firm is targeting small to medium-sized utilities, Phelp told the session.
  • UMC Energy and Environment looks to decarbonize large thermal heating and cooling systems with renewable steam, providing a "great opportunity to displace natural gas with electricity," specifically accessing renewables at periods of low value, said business developer Scott DeWees. His firm is seeking collaborators in the form of system hosts, utilities, grant funders, and technology and finance partners.
  • Incorporated in 2016, OCO seeks "to use captured carbon dioxide to make a single, but high value product, formic acid, using increasingly lower cost renewable electricity, displacing fossil-fuel derived feedstocks," according to its website. CEO Todd Brix told a Showcase session this is a form of energy storage, which for utilities could provide revenue, reduced CO2, a new ancillary service and peak-shaving opportunities. His firm is targeting a demonstration project next year in eastern Washington, seeking to take advantage of BPA power and the ability to site a large manufacturing facility.

These sessions all were promotional in nature, with some audience questions, but not deep dissections of technologies, financing or business plans. It's hard to gauge their prospects to become difference-makers. Nonetheless, this "showcased" a slice of clean-tech possibilities.

I also appreciated informal chats with Showcase attendees, ranging from a UW grad student working on fuel cells, to a software developer looking to apply his decades-long experience to the power grid, to a gentleman looking to establish multiple-value-stream electric-vehicle charging stations on rural and scenic byways.

Conventional wisdom says we are living in an historically dynamic energy era. These two events furthered this notion. [Mark Ohrenschall]

Bearing Down is excerpted from NewsData's Clearing Up publication. If you aren't a current subscriber, see for yourself how NewsData reporters put events in an accurate and meaningful context -- request a sample of Clearing Up.

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