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Clean Energy & The Blurring of Lines

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Blurring lines is a good moniker for clean energy today. You’ll see that word referred to when it comes to the changing dynamics of new technology and business models. One way to consider this in regards to clean energy is to examine the players, how they interact with one another, and the overall system in which they reside. The lines are "blurring" because of the political and regulatory environment, new suppliers, delivery methods, and energy sources. Some of these changes are outlined throughout this document.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, States - Regulatory Certainty

FERC oversees two key areas of frequent conflict at the intersection of the clean energy transition. Those two key areas are: Bulk electricity (the interstate transmission lines and regional wholesale power markets), and natural gas infrastructure (the siting and building of new pipelines). In electricity, it has no legal mandate to address climate directly, but it does have a mandate to maintain open, competitive markets and facilitation of a cleaner energy mix.

The blurring of the lines exists between FERC and the state commissions. The Federal Power Act sets up a relationship between FERC and the states known as “cooperative federalism”, or accommodating the state’s statutory role, deferring to states in assessing how they want their electric resource mix to evolve. States have taken a variety of routes (i.e., renewable energy portfolio standard) to achieve this and it is hard for FERC to level the playing field as most states adopt different regulatory mechanisms. The difficulties of coordinating interstate electricity policies could mean preemption of a states’ role as chief regulators of the electricity industry. While preemption would eliminate some state-level roadblocks to interstate cooperation, it would sacrifice many of the benefits of local knowledge.

The best example of what is mentioned above, is when FERC passed the minimum price offer rule (MOPR) order in December 2019, despite strong opposition from state and clean energy advocates. The biggest immediate concern for states like New Jersey and Maryland is the order's impact on offshore wind development — New Jersey is aiming to add 7,500 MW by 2035 and Maryland's renewable portfolio standard has a 1,200 MW offshore wind carve-out.

Big Players in the Clean Energy System

Amazon, Google, and Facebook were the largest buyers of renewable energy in 2019. The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), a membership association for large-scale energy buyers, reported the top five spots on their clean energy tracker were all taken by technology companies, Facebook landed at No. 1, followed by Google. This is no surprise, as technology companies require energy-intensive data centers to make their operations possible.

When looking at the first half of 2020 for the REBA deal tracker (see picture below) – the top three are a bit surprising with Verizon, General Motors, and Cargrill. To the average consumer, it may make sense for big technology companies to be on board with renewables. That same consumer may also not consider that telecommunications or car companies would need to take similar actions. These sectors do not have as straight a shot to emissions reductions as data centers, with their high energy demand. For Verizon Communications, in April 2020, the company announced that it entered a long-term power purchase agreement with Clearway Energy Group and Invenergy to finance construction of new wind and solar facilities.

City Government and Utilities

Smart cities have disrupted several sectors including energy, transportation, buildings, and core city services. Utilities have developed smart city business, driven by the need to generate new revenue opportunities. Smart city applications such as EV charging infrastructure and services, smart street lighting/buildings, distributed energy resources, and smart city communication networks all offer significant new business opportunities for utilities. The smart city movement though is at risk with the lack of standardization. As Smart City Connect describes:

“The lack of standards and standardization is an issue that plagues the smart city movement at all levels and in all countries. Global corporations are challenged to constantly adjust while also attempting to scale solutions. Business unit leaders should factor custom builds into their bottom line. While it may be tempting to invest in the creation of software or a service and apply it across multiple customers, the reality is that each city is different. Subsequently, each utility will be different and the pace of their evolution will be unique as well.”

Other Areas Blurring:

· Transportation electrification particularly as the energy load decreases but it will depend on evaluating electrification cost-effectiveness as utilities and regulators transition to a de-carbonized and electrified energy system. Even as of this writing, the NC Utilities Commission has yet to evaluate Duke Energy’s EV pilot months after its proposal was submitted months and months ago.

· Utilities and transactive energy, or blockchain, which serves as a distributed digital record of actions agreed and performed by multiple parties. Blockchain’s value is providing mathematical proof about the state of data, so that different parties to a transaction can agree on the outcome even if they do not know or trust each other. Early blockchain developers are establishing transactional digital platforms that can be completely decentralized and can enable peer-to-peer energy trading. Blockchain-enabled transactional digital platforms offer operational cost reductions, increased efficiency, fast and automated processes, transparency and the possibility of reducing capital requirements for energy firms.

· Organizational advocacy: No longer are clean energy organizations advocating for one technology. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) joined as part of a larger American Clean Power Association. The Solar Energy Industries Association no longer does their Solar Power conferences under the name Solar Power but instead adds storage to it so it becomes Solar + Storage. Clean energy technologies must look at the entire suite of options.

The future is unknown, and the national election could upend everything again. With this new reality comes the need to constantly adjust and change. As my focus is solely on renewable energy, it is an exciting time to be in the middle of massive energy sector transformation, even if the lines are blurry.

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