Shaping the Utility of the Future

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Shaping the Utility of the Future was the theme of the fifth annual summit of Renew Wisconsin. The organization’s mission is focused on promoting a transformation to Wisconsin’s renewable energy future.

For the past 100 years, America’s electric utilities operated under state-granted monopolies over the sale of electricity and were regulated by state utility commissions. They invested in generators and delivery systems and gained a return on their investments that were paid by consumers of the electricity.

While some changes have been made such as that which occurred in Illinois opening up the production of electricity to competition while retaining a monopoly over its distribution via the grid, concern is rising that the existing legal, economic and regulatory systems are preventing rapid innovation.

The utility system is dramatically impacted by policy or the rules that govern its performance. With customers having access to new technologies that reduce electrical consumption or produce their own electricity, they are seeking rules that support, not thwart, these options. For utilities such efforts reduce their load, adversely affect their profits and shift some of the costs of operations to their remaining customers.

The Wisconsin event featured some examples of changes that are occurring which support a transition to a renewable energy future. Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power of Vermont described how the firm has restructured the utility to become a leader in the renewable energy revolution and supporter of distributed generation. Their transformation was focused on what customers wanted and how the company could accommodate their interests while remaining profitable.

They moved away from the bulk power system and reduced their reliance on power plants that were used only 50 percent of the time. They purchased less electricity from out of state suppliers, focused on upgrading the energy efficiency of homes and encouraged the use of solar energy. They created a package for homeowners who wanted to become energy independent by going off grid. They have also supported the development of microgrids based on solar systems with battery backup.

The installation of a wind farm has proven cost effective and contributed to allowing them to cut electric bills three times. She feels they can still do better in their efforts to move to cleaner energy sources. They are exploring the potential application of biodigesters to process food wastes and manure into methane to produce electricity.

The event featured successful efforts among Wisconsin utilities to move toward cleaner energy sources. With no new wind projects in the state, successful efforts were focused on solar projects. Cooperatives and community-based utilities totaled 1,518 kW of installed capacity. Cooperatives in Eau Claire and Taylor and municipal utilities in Clark, River Falls, New Richmond and WPPI Energy were recognized. Another 10 solar projects were mentioned providing power to food, farm, manufacturing, transportation and community solar projects. An additional 30 of the largest solar projects and one dairy biogas project were recognized as well.

With 98 percent of Wisconsin’s money spent on energy leaving the state, the desire to move toward a cleaner energy future based on local production remains a strong pressure for change. When combined with environmental issues, continued cost reductions in renewable energy sources, more efficient appliances and new sources of competition, the pressures for change will continue.

With the substantial investment in the existing utility structure, resistance to an energy revolution remains powerful. The issues require resolution.

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