Julia Hamm and SEPA Want You to Envision the Future Utility

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Most complex things are not black and white, and the solar landscape in the U.S. is certainly complex. Julia Hamm, President and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), understands this. That gives her a unique insight into solar and how utilities interact with it.

We had a chance to speak with Hamm last month at Solar Power International (SPI) and found that she defies stereotypes – both in her own professional life and in her understanding of the solar industry.

Hamm has reached her position as a prominent woman in solar through her understanding of and confidence in her subject matter. Coming from a background in utilities, she was already accustomed to often being the only woman in the room, and it doesn’t seem to have bothered her. You could say she’s a pioneering solar woman.

Now she’s at the forefront of another major trend in solar. As the head of an organization that counts utilities as a high percentage of its membership, Hamm is asking the question: What will the utility of the future look like?

Crowdsourcing a vision for futuristic utilities

While the discussion has been a contentious one among utilities and solar advocates, SEPA has been trying to broker the conversation and steer it in a constructive direction. The organization has a long history of supporting solar. Hamm pointed out that SEPA got its start doing demo solar projects. The organization paid for 1100 grid-connected PV systems way back in the solar dark ages — the early 1990s. With this effort and its work to accelerate utility solar markets, SEPA helped move the industry forward.

That was when solar was less of a threat to utilities. In more recent times, the battle has been getting heated. Now Hamm is asking, How can we change that?

At SPI, she provided part of the answer: With a major challenge to the status quo. SEPA’s new initiative, which Hamm announced at the SPI opening session, asks us to envision a new state with no predefined electricity market: the 51st State. The initiative launches today.

Clearly, Hamm is looking to let the ideas flow — she’s so far not divulging her own opinions on the matter. “We’re hoping for new ideas,” she told us, “and interesting ideas that are already out there and don’t have a national platform.” An example would be the “Reforming the Energy Vision” process in New York. Part of the plan is to bring ideas like that to light and give them more of a forum for discussion — and possibly emulation.

Regarding the clashes between utilities and solar, Hamm asked, “What if it were different? What if we could start all over again, with a clean slate?” The utility SEPA is envisioning, “Tomorrow’s Power & Light,” would have a goal of creating a strong and vibrant solar and DER market. Beyond that, she told us, “It has no predefined solar market, no policies, no subsidies. What it has is a grid, customers, and a suite of power.”

A focus on customers

At the SPI opening session, Hamm had called out a few examples of utilities that are doing a good job of integrating solar. We asked her, What are these utilities doing right that others could emulate?

Hamm’s answer focused around one word: customers. “Utilities haven’t had to be customer-focused in the past,” she said. “Now that’s driving the conversations.” This was a key takeaway for SEPA officials who went on a recent fact-finding visit to Germany. “In Germany,” Hamm noted, “the utilities said, ‘We didn’t listen to our customers.’”

As in the U.S., the German solar market is complex. Hamm cautioned against taking any stories written about it at face value. The German solar and renewables transition has been a success story, she said — for the transmission and distribution system operators. The generation companies, on the other hand, haven’t fared as well. It’s simply not a black-and-white situation.

What else can we learn from Germany? First, we can’t compare Germany to our whole country. “Germany is to the E.U. like California is to the U.S.,” Hamm pointed out.

Among the differences between the two countries is the fact that Germany has a more modern grid. “After the war they had to rebuild,” she said, “so the grid is more robust and has higher reliability standards.”

The way forward for the U.S.

So should we make our grid more robust? Or, as Hamm suggested, can we think about new ways to approach the grid? “Sandy is causing a conversation about a quick resiliency grid,” she noted. Smart grid features are getting a lot of attention.

Whether it’s the grid or other solar-related issues, one thing is clear. Not all states are alike, and not all utilities are alike. That means we can’t expect their approaches to solar to be alike.

While it’s true that many utilities are starting to feel threatened by rooftop solar, some are turning the tables on the threat by trying to own solar production themselves — even if it’s on customers’ roofs. Others have no interest in doing that.

What about the minimum utility bill? That’s been hailed recently as a possible happy solution to net metering battles raging around the country. But Hamm warned that here, too, utilities won’t all react the same way. Given her close-up vantage point, we should heed her insights on this. Many of us have harbored high hopes for the minimum bill — but we should not expect it to work everywhere, or to be a silver bullet.

What should we expect? Now that the 51st State initiative is open for business, anyone can submit their ideas by downloading the guidelines and starting a two-step submission process. Proposals will be reviewed by an independent, five-member panel. A webinar on the initiative and submission process is schedule for December 8.

SEPA plans to showcase the most innovative, comprehensive proposals at a 51st State Summit set for April 27 in San Diego, in conjunction with the organization’s 2015 Utility Solar Conference.

Will the initiative live up to its promise? We can’t say, but it’s sure to be interesting.