Forming a vision of the future

In late March, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) released a report summarizing a series of three stakeholder workshops they held on grid modernization. Great River Energy and member cooperative Dakota Electric Association were among those selected by the commission to provide insight into the changes taking place in the electric industry.

In total, 20 parties representing a diverse array of perspectives – including utilities, advocacy groups, state agencies and technology vendors – participated in the workshops. The commission also looked at grid modernization efforts around the United States.

“The commission’s grid modernization process is timely and necessary,” said Great River Energy Vice President and Chief Transmission Officer Will Kaul. “Stakeholders of all stripes need a process where changes in technology, customer behavior and the generation resource mix all are in play.”

Grid modernization is a term being used around the country to describe bringing the electric grid to a place where it can meet customer needs, take advantage of advanced technologies and meet public policy goals such as those regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Working toward consumers’ best interests
PUC Commissioner Nancy Lange said the commission initiated the proceeding to gather the vast knowledge available from various stakeholders while considering policies related to distribution planning. The goal is to help ensure distribution grid investments made today will serve the purposes of the future grid and fulfill consumers’ evolving needs.

“Minnesota’s electric system is operated in a very reliable and safe way. As we think about the changes coming – advancements in technology, new customer choices and changes in public policy – we know the distribution grid is an area where there’s great potential for innovation and opportunity for increased customer engagement,” said Lange.

Holly Lahd, director of energy markets for renewable independent energy nonprofit organization Fresh Energy, was a panelist at the first workshop. “Customers want more options and control over everything from their TV and cell phone service to where their electricity comes from. New technologies are allowing customers to choose how to engage with the electric grid and their utility,” she said.

The PUC currently provides some oversight over transmission planning, but has only touched on distribution planning during other activities. Examples include resource planning activities that include distributed energy resources, demand response and load management programs; the review of utilities service quality standards; and matters related to interconnection of distributed resources.

Cooperatives well into grid modernization
Dakota Electric Association President and CEO Greg Miller said Great River Energy and its members have formed a future grid committee that is leading similar activities to develop strategies and evaluate investments that are in the best interest of member-consumers.

“The PUC’s grid modernization process is not unlike our future grid activities. Great River Energy and its members are planning together, evaluating the benefits of new technologies and learning from best practices used by other utilities in the country,” said Miller.

He said the cooperatives have already been very proactive. “We are researching, testing and strategically deploying new technologies that will enable greater efficiency and improve the flow of information between consumers and their electric cooperative,” said Miller.

In 2014 and 2015, Great River Energy installed 20-kilowatt solar installations at 19 member sites to evaluate solar energy’s performance, maintenance requirements and impact on the grid. Miller said learning from pilot projects is the right thing to do for member-consumers.

Similar to community solar projects, the co-op community storage program aggregates controlled residential appliances, such as water heaters, to build local energy-storage capability that complements wind and solar energy.

Past research uncovered growing momentum for the electrification of Minnesota’s economy, particularly transportation. That inspired RevoltTM, a program that offers renewable energy credits for the expected life of an electric vehicle at no additional cost.

Finally, many cooperatives are using advanced metering infrastructure, which opens a vast array of opportunities for member-consumers.

Cooperatives are unique
Lange said the commission appreciated the participation of Great River Energy and its members. “Co-ops have a very unique and important perspective to add to the discussion. The distribution cooperatives walk the walk every day in maintaining the system and keeping it reliable and safe. They are also in close communications with their customers about capabilities their customers might want as technology and customer interests evolve.”

A bright future
“The changes we anticipate will be good for consumers and for the industry,” said Kaul. “When all is said and done, we will have a cleaner, more reliable system, and consumers will be much more engaged in managing their energy use. We believe that kind of consumer engagement will rekindle the old cooperative spirit.”