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Electricity at the Crossroads fergregory/iStock/Thinkstock

Electricity at the Crossroads

Looking back, 2015 has been a remarkable year for the electric power industry, and looking forward, 2016 does not appear any less extraordinary.

As the New Year begins, it may be beneficial to revisit the year just past. Looking back, 2015 has been a remarkable year for the electric power industry, and looking forward, 2016 does not appear any less extraordinary. Let’s take a quick look at some of the more salient trends.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact for the industry is that the unrelenting march toward a decarbonized energy world reached major milestones in 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency published its final Clean Power Plan (CPP) in October calling for a 32% reduction in 2005 existing power plant carbon emissions by 2030. In December, 195 nations arrived at a historic climate change agreement in Paris. For its part of the deal, the U.S. said it would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26% by 2025. Supporters believe the Paris climate deal bolsters the need for the CPP, and the CPP in turn represents the chief means by which the U.S. plans to meet its Paris commitment. Circular logic aside, both must be viewed as landmark events.

Equally remarkable is the ongoing transformation of the nations’ generation fleet both in composition and in function. Driven by environmental regulation, cheap natural gas and plant age, coal-fired power plants have been closing at a rapid rate. Since 2010, 42 GW of coal-fired generating capacity has been removed from the grid with more than 15 GW being retired in 2015. Cheap gas, plant age and wholesale energy market design also have led to the retirement of nuclear plants. With new natural gas plants replacing much of the retired capacity, utilities are increasingly exposed to that fuel’s volatile supply and price.

In states like California with high renewable energy penetration rates, the function of generation is changing as well. As quoted by Utility Dive, CAISO CEO Steve Berberich said at PowerGen 2015, “Capability will be the coin of the realm.” What he means is that as wind and solar generation become larger portions of the generation mix, controllable and flexibility energy resources will increasingly command a premium. He also warned that California’s mix of high renewables and distributed generation would soon be the new norm for the nation. If true, traditional base-load plants with their inability to adapt to changing conditions may rapidly be joining the dinosaur.

The year 2015 also witnessed the unceasing growth of renewable energy and distributed energy resources (DERs). On the renewable energy front, low-cost photovoltaic panels coupled with incentives continued to drive the growth of all types of solar energy. Interestingly, 2015 also saw significant growth in community and utility-scale solar as utilities increasingly got into the solar business. As an example, Austin Energy recently approved a power purchase agreement for 300 MW of utilityscale solar at prices reported to be below 4 cents per kWh.

Pushed by market creation efforts in states like New York and California, DERs continued growing. One DER technology had an exceptional year in 2015. In fact, 2015 may well be a bellwether year for energy storage. GreenTech Media Research estimates that in 2015 energy storage installations will hit 192 MW, or three times the amount experienced in 2014. With prices continuing to decline and interest growing, these numbers will likely continue to increase.

Regulators were also busy in 2015. In addition to DER market creation efforts, numerous state jurisdictions undertook proceedings to tackle net metering, fixed or demand charges, value of solar, and other rate-related issues surrounding rooftop solar. Utilities also showed a willingness to expand their businesses by offering or piloting rooftop solar, community solar, home energy storage, on-bill solar financing, microgrids, electric vehicle charging and other “behind-themeter” activities.

This surge of activity by both utilities and their regulators may be reflective of the difficulties that surround attempts to integrate competitive activities, such as rooftop solar, into a regulated monopoly setting. At best, it seems like an effort to mix oil and water, and often leads to imperfect and highly contested results.

Perhaps we are rapidly approaching a time when the number of competitive energy offerings will compel state jurisdictions to revisit the merits of retail energy competition. A properly structured retail energy market may prove to be the only way for diverse DER offerings to be properly valued against one another and against more traditional energy sources. Given retail competition’s mixed results, regulators may be reluctant to reopen that particular can of worms.

Change has been the byword for the utility industry for some time, but unlike previous times, change in this era is increasingly more sweeping and difficult to predict. At some future juncture, will 2015 be viewed as the point when industry change became truly transformational? Perhaps. Clearly those individuals and companies that struggle with change may view 2015 as a “bad” year. On the other hand, those individuals and companies that embrace change may see 2015 as a “good” year and see great promise in 2016.

How do you see 2015 and how will 2016 play out? Let us hear from you.

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