eLab Accelerator Projects Sustain Hope for Clean Energy Innovation

Anyone reading the news knows that clean energy isn’t getting much support at the federal level these days. As President Trump moves to unravel the Clean Power Plan and his administration continues to promote the use of fossil fuels for energy generation, America’s leadership on clean energy seems to be on shaky ground. In order to reap the economic, security, and climate benefits of a clean energy economy, we need to double down on innovation in the clean energy space now more than ever. While the federal scene is bleak, we see signs of hope and continued U.S. leadership at the state and local levels, where many of the most innovative projects in the country are happening, unabated by the strife in Washington, D.C. These projects don’t depend on federal support, but rather leverage collaboration within and between cities and counties, state legislatures, utilities, and public utility commissions to find breakthrough solutions on electricity issues at the distribution edge.

Nowhere will the light of clean energy innovation shine brighter than in Sundance, Utah, where Rocky Mountain Institute’s Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) has convened 13 of the most innovative initiatives in the electricity sector for its fourth annual eLab Accelerator taking place this week. When RMI’s eLab team went in search of the most important and novel projects and initiatives happening in the electricity industry—collaborating with experts, leaders, and front-line practitioners to find them—several important themes surfaced that tell us something about the issues most in need of innovation today. Among this year’s 13 Accelerator projects are teams working to determine the best methods to value distributed energy resources (DERs), exploring how to use DERs to offset planned capital expenditures, devising business models to engage low- and moderate-income (LMI) households in community solar, and exploring ways to create new utility business models.


Across the country, we are seeing an increase in the number of utilities and regulatory commissions that are looking at innovative ways to value DERs on their grid and embracing new strategies for how to better harness the benefits of DERs. Utilities and other industry stakeholders are collaborating to find mutually beneficial methods to compensate assets such as solar and electric vehicles for the benefits they provide to the grid, while still accounting for the costs and impacts these devices can have on the grid when deployed at scale. At Accelerator, a number of teams will explore this particular issue as it relates to electric vehicles and the mechanisms that are necessary to ensure that the costs and benefits of broader transport electrification are optimized for the electricity system as well as the transportation system.


As DER penetration increases on the grid, utilities are finding new ways to ensure DERs are mutually beneficial to their businesses and their customers. One notable approach involves utilities offsetting traditional capital expenditures, such as investment in a new power plant, with the placement of DERs in targeted areas throughout their system. While a handful of utilities have begun to experiment with this approach, there are still relatively few examples where this has been successfully demonstrated to date, which makes it that much more critical that these early adopters succeed. Several teams at Accelerator are exploring strategies to help utilities leverage DERs in their service territory in this way. Another team is considering what is necessary on the part of DER providers, regulators, and advocates in order to both push more utilities to explore this approach and to support utilities in leveraging this approach to DER deployment.


LMI households are often unable to access clean energy due to a number of socioeconomic barriers within more traditional business models. Poor credit scores and a lack of upfront capital have made the LMI population generally ineligible to participate in the clean energy economy. However, this untapped market segment could receive a number of benefits of clean energy, such as lessened energy bills and equity in a large-scale energy project. Several teams at Accelerator will be exploring how to provide LMI communities with access to community-scale solar in a way that is mutually beneficial to all agencies involved. Teams are exploring ways to revitalize communities through job creation, equity in clean energy assets, and revenues from electricity sales. The models these teams discover could be replicated in similar jurisdictions and scaled to populations all over the United States.


Another theme is emerging around how utilities and communities are working together to blaze new trails to a high-DER future. Responding to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and other threats to the electric grid, communities around the world are turning to microgrid-based resiliency solutions. While we have all the technologies we need to deploy these local resiliency solutions, the business models that will enable them to scale beyond one-off projects still require real innovation on the part of all stakeholders—utilities, communities, and project developers. Some of the teams at Accelerator are building new utility business models from the ground up, starting with critical facilities, and other teams are working from the top down to rethink the utility business model, transform the traditional utility role, and align utility incentives with DER deployment and grid modernization. Whether dealing with fundamental role realignment or local resiliency solutions, though, these teams are all working to reimagine the way utilities interact with the customers and communities they serve.


Starting today, the 2017 eLab Accelerator teams will convene at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah to accelerate their initiatives with the support of nationally renowned expert faculty and eLab’s specially trained expert facilitators. At Accelerator and beyond, projects from across the country are continuing to develop solutions for a transformed electricity system that will grow the clean energy economy and grant access to clean energy technologies for untapped parts of the population. Whatever the developments on the federal level, these 13 projects, and others like them, sustain hope for and progress toward a clean energy future in the United States, and beyond.