Our plan is to foster utility leadership, to apply an up-to-date understanding of all of its solar integration options, from proper PV siting and strategic system design, to combining storage and demand-response (DR) measures. These efforts will, in effect, fine-tune both resource availability and the load. All options on our list of storage and DR choices are proven, though we suggest different patterns of dispatch: using them more frequently or in particular combinations that address solar variability in particular timeframes.
The longest timeframes address seasonal peaks. Simple enough. Shorter timeframes and slightly more sophisticated controls can address the emerging “Duck Curve” pattern of solar over-generation in mid-afternoon hours, followed by a steep drop in solar production just when early-evening peak-demand occurs. Excess solar generation may be stored in thermal equipment or batteries, for example, and peak loads may be reduced through cycling. In addition, the shortest timeframe auto-DR options also may be tapped, to address solar variability from passing clouds and such.
Overall, this is a vision of system efficiency. My engineer friends like it because when this strategy is applied, the utility can use a lot more solar, with greater reliability and less need for potentially costly grid upgrades and regional integration services. Yet some of them have asked whether we can compensate customers enough to participate in companion measures?
Here’s where my long-past experience with community outreach kicks in. I believe the assumption that customer interest depends on cash compensation greatly underestimates their intelligence and their community spirit. Why wouldn’t customers share an appreciation for system efficiency—and for choices that solve energy problems through locally-based actions and investments? I suspect customers would be especially interested if they knew one result could be more solar, faster and greater community sustainability overall.
This messaging isn’t easy. Already, the CSVP is working to match the right customer sub-groups at our test utility in Sacramento with customized program offers. It probably will take select incentives, too. But here are a few examples I’ve found so far that community spirit can drive a successful community solar-plus program:
- An early test of community-based DR happened in Chicago fifteen years ago. A local non-profit worked with the ComEd (Exelon) to organize a Community Energy Cooperative. Using old fashioned communications and conventional technologies, the project drew strong participation in a Southside neighborhood. Instead of paying individual customers for load reduction, incentive payments went into a community development fund. The project proved its ability to reduce load on strained circuits by 8.7 MW in less than 30 minutes.
- PowerShift Atlantic is a current program, designed to balance wind generation, engaging utilities and their customers in northeastern Canada. This project uses a range of technologies and offers choices for all kinds of customers. Participation has exceeded all expectations—and most customers are participating with no special incentives, using their own storage or control equipment. As the program has grown, state-of-the-art auto-DR technologies have been added, drawing international attention to this success story. According to Michel Losier, program director for New Brunswick (NB) Power, “Our customers tell us, keep the lights on, don’t raise the rates, and we want to see more wind and less fossil generation. We tell them we can’t go this alone anymore.”  Clearly, customers have stepped up to meet the challenge.
- A community solar program in Minnesota is demonstrating the same finding on a smaller scale. Steele-Waseca Electric Cooperative, a wholesale customer of Great River Energy G&T, offers community solar project participants a greatly-reduced price of just $170 for each 410-Watt panel-sized share in its program. In addition, these participants get a free electric-storage water heater. The deal: they must agree to electronic control on the water heater, which in effect, turns it into a solar storage battery. If they do not wish to participate in the DR part of the program, the cost for the 410-W share is more than $1,200. Participation has been strong, and many small utilities in the region are looking to replicate the program.
Utilities may see this Solar Holler case as a dual lesson: one on ability of ordinary customers to understand the value of solar plus DR and storage, and the other on the need to engage customers now, before they get ahead of the game.