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Industry Updates

A Conversation: Renewables at the ‘Tipping Point’

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In the second of two interviews we conducted with leaders of major renewable energy trade groups, Julia Hamm, CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), declares renewables “are no longer an ‘alternative’ energy. They are a default energy choice.”

Soon after North America Smart Energy Week conference concluded last year in Salt Lake City, we asked Hamm to give us her assessment of the green energy industry as we begin a new decade.

Energy & Resources Best Practices: What is your assessment of the renewable power industry as 2020 begins and how does Smart Energy Week fit into it?

Julia Hamm: As I said in my remarks at the opening general session in Salt Lake City, solar, storage and other clean energy technologies are no longer “alternative” energy. They are the default energy choice, both because of price and the imperative for us to reduce carbon in our energy system. So it makes sense that a trade show focused on all of these resources is now the largest energy show in the country.

ERBP: Were there any particular topics or technologies that seemed to especially interest attendees — or you?

JH: Energy storage continues to be a hot topic for the industry. Battery storage will play an increasingly important role in balancing the grid, both small systems associated with individual customers as well as large projects at the grid level. And going forward, there is a need for the industry to tackle seasonal storage through the development of new technologies, as that is a linchpin for an energy system increasingly reliant upon significant penetrations of variable clean energy resources.

Another growing topic of interest is electric vehicles and the infrastructure necessary to leverage these vehicles as grid assets. SEPA has been building content on this topic into the show for the past two years, and are excited to significantly increase that focus as we plan for the 2020 show. EVs are not only cleaner themselves, but if the infrastructure is put in place appropriately, they can serve as a distributed battery, further supporting the integration of more clean energy onto the grid.

In the solar market, bifacial modules were the featured technology on display across the expo floor. Bifacial modules produce solar power from both sides of the panel, thereby increasing efficiency and energy yields. Though bifacial modules first made their entrance in 1960, the technology is only now breaking into the mainstream for residential as well as commercial applications. Driven by policy considerations, a desire for peak energy-yields and lowest LCOE, it’s worth keeping a close eye on this market going forward.

ERBP: We’ve seen the general public begin to pay more attention to the issue of climate change — particularly young people. Does this make you more optimistic? How could this impact the renewables industry?

JH: In addition to serving as the CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, I also serve as the board chair of another great nonprofit called the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, or CELI. CELI is focused on developing the new generation of energy leaders. When I gave a keynote address at the CELI emPower conference last year, I told the audience of young professionals this: “You are not the future leaders of the clean energy industry. You are the future leaders of the energy industry, which will be clean.”

It’s interesting to note that for the younger generations, clean energy is not an option, it’s an expectation. The cultural battle is being won by the simple reality of new generations with new attitudes.

ERBP: You told POWER mag that “we feel the industry has reached a tipping point” regarding climate change. How so?

JH: The tipping point we’ve witnessed is around the power sector taking ownership for helping to solve its portion of the carbon reduction challenge. It’s only in the recent past that climate science discussions have made their way into the boardrooms of publicly traded utilities. Over the course of the past year, utilities have begun to set aggressive voluntary carbon reduction goals and develop plans for how to accomplish them. We’ve been tracking these commitments and sharing them through SEPA’s Utility Carbon Reduction Tracker.

ERBP: The SEPA “2019 Utility Solar Market Snapshot” noted that the solar growth rate in the residential and non-residential markets declined last year, while the utility supply market picked up speed. What accounts for these trends, and how do you expect them to look in 2019-20?

JH: Even with the imposed tariffs and the ramping down of the ITC, ambitious clean energy announcements  and renewable energy targets by states and utilities across the country highlight the continued support of solar growth in the U.S. Utilities will increasingly call on renewable energy, including solar, to meet these targets and transition to a cleaner energy future.

ERBP: Overall, how is the solar/renewables industry faring three-plus years into the Trump administration?

JH: Not only are we seeing that renewable power is the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the world, but costs are continuing to decline. Those declines are being stimulated by falling costs of energy storage technologies that offer an opportunity to make renewables more dispatchable.

When you take into account the falling costs, the number of workers employed by the clean energy industry and the security provided by having clean and safe energy procured at home, the renewable energy industry is likely to experience continued growth. Thus, it is no surprise that North America Smart Energy Week is now the largest energy trade show in the country.

ERBP: Can you share any “best practices” you have learned from your members that you think our readers could learn from?

JH: SEPA is an organization that prides itself on convening thought-leaders and decision-makers from across the electricity industry to share best practices, review the latest research and collaborate to develop solutions. Whether it’s through SEPA’s event programming and networking, or our national and regional trade shows, I would recommend that people take advantage of in-person events as an effective way to share ideas and promote innovation through collaboration.

ERBP: Do you have any other thoughts or observations on the industry that you’d like to share? For example, what can we learn from the “2019 Utility Demand Response Market Snapshot?”

JH: Traditionally, utilities would call upon large commercial and industrial customers to reduce, increase or shift electricity load in response to specific market or system conditions. This change in load, known as demand response, has typically included one-way communication devices that were only called upon during emergency peak events.

As demand response has evolved, the number of participants and its capabilities have expanded to integrate distributed energy resources (DERs). For example, utilities can draw upon aggregated residential energy storage systems, smart thermostats and solar to provide valuable grid services. SEPA’s 2019 Utility Demand Response Market Snapshot report highlighted the growing diversity of demand response programs, as older programs are being phased out, and new, advanced technologies and smart devices are being introduced.

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