power lines and wind turbines over a solar field at sunset

Rocky Mountain Institute Announces Leading-Edge Topics for 2017 eLab Summit Convening

Boulder, Colorado, Sept. 28, 2017—Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) today announced the 2017 focus areas for its Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) Summit, an annual multistakeholder workshop for electricity leaders and decision makers advancing solutions at the grid’s distribution edge.

Led by RMI, eLab is a multiyear collaboration of leading industry actors to develop, implement, and scale new solutions to enable greater adoption of economic distributed energy resources (DERs). Summit, focused on collaboration among thought leaders, is being held outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, from October 2–4, 2017.

“We are growing our eLab ecosystem to be the top venue where industry leaders come to solve the power industry’s toughest challenges,” said Coreina Chan, a principal at RMI who oversees eLab. “At Summit, we’ll be hosting representatives from large utilities, state commissions, DER providers, the investor community, NGOs, customers, and others, all working together to advance our common vision of a cleaner, more resilient, and more customer-oriented electricity sector.”

Summit participants join small discussion groups to frame and advance actionable strategies to address these key areas of innovation.

  • Distributed Grid Infrastructure: How Grid Planners and DER Developers Can Scale the Use of DERs as Grid Assets — Portfolios of renewable generation, energy efficiency, demand flexibility, storage, electric vehicles (EVs), and more can form into “virtual power plants” or “non-wires alternatives” whose costs and services can be competitive with traditional infrastructure investments. This discussion group will help utility planners, regulators, DER providers, and other stakeholders understand how to adapt grid planning processes to best accommodate the expanding capabilities of DERs, how to meet regulatory needs to accelerate and scale distributed grid infrastructure solutions, and how to best engage the market to provide cost-effective solutions.
  • Infrastructure Planning for the New Mobility Future: When, Where, and How to Plan for Electric, Autonomous, and Shared Mobility — The rapid advances in autonomous vehicle technology combined with major investments/partnerships between EV companies, autonomous vehicle (AV) companies, and transportation network companies (TNCs) suggest that shared AVs will enter the market sometime within the next five years. This has major implications for how public and private electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) infrastructure is utilized (or stranded) over the next decade. This discussion group will focus on various ways utilities and regulators can help shape and participate in building a robust and future-proof EVSE network.
  • Smart Heating Electrification — Any path to deep decarbonization requires sharp reduction in buildings’ use of fossil fuels to heat space and water. As wind and solar generate more of our power, the carbon intensity of the grid is falling and the value of demand flexibility is increasing. When, where, and how should buildings be switched from gas, oil, and propane to grid-interactive electric devices? What policies, business models, and price signals can support successful electrification programs?
  • Low-Income-Focused Utility Business Models — Low-income participation in DERs will play a critical role in energy system transformation. Utilities in particular have a major role to play through developing new business models to advance this future. How can utilities better understand the needs of their diverse low-income customers? What business models enable utilities to get behind community-owned DER assets? What do new compensation mechanisms—like value of distributed energy resources (VDER) methodology—and emerging rate structures mean for utilities’ ability to equitably serve low-income customers? What roles are utilities playing in emerging DER business models? What are the pros, cons, and implications for the “utility of the future”?
  • Distributed Energy and Distributed Consensus: A Blockchain Breakthrough for DERs and Transaction Energy? — Is a transactive energy system (devices, buildings, and industrial assets trading with each other at the grid edge) the best way to achieve 100% renewables penetration and a customer-centric grid? And could blockchain technologies be a critical enabler for such a system? Our view is that DERs, smart grid technology, the internet-of-things, and emerging approaches to cybersecurity have matured to the point that they put an idealized electricity system design within reach. Despite the existence of many of the building blocks of this idealized system, several challenges hold us back. Managing an order-of-magnitude larger number of assets is complex and expensive; much of our electricity system remains “dumb” (i.e., most of our electrical devices are incapable of communicating with the grid and responding to price signals); and our market and regulatory structures are designed for a 100-year-old paradigm. We will explore how blockchain technology can help overcome these challenges.
  • Value Stacking for DERs — Deploying DERs to achieve multiple objectives rather than just one increases utilization and improves economic value. DERs can provide multiple services (load shifting, peak reduction, ancillary services, etc.) at multiple system levels and locations (transmission, distribution, etc.). This discussion group will explore and extend current thinking on structures for compensating DERs for providing multiple services. To do so, the working group will examine the set of services that DERs are capable of providing to the system and define guiding principles for delivery and payment of those services.
  • Rate Design: Getting Out of the Stone Age — The electricity rates used by mass-market utility customers in the U.S. have not changed appreciably in nearly a century; most customers still use flat, block, or tiered rate designs. While these rates have served us well, ample evidence shows that modern rate designs (such as time-of-use and critical peak pricing rates) can be more effective at achieving key policy objectives, including peak reduction, conservation, and customer satisfaction. However, the growing body of knowledge around these rate designs is not translating to an industry-wide shift from 20th-century rates to 21st-century rates. What transition pathways will enable this shift? What barriers need to be addressed?
  • Utility Business Models: The Path Forward — The continued evolution of the electricity industry has led to new thinking for the utility business model. New approaches are being implemented in many jurisdictions, largely involving modifications to the traditional cost-of-service model. Elsewhere, potentially more sweeping changes are being tested. Three notable approaches are: utility as a platform—or distribution system operator (DSO)—to coordinate market participants, expanded performance-based regulation to realign utility incentives, and utility-financed or utility-owned DERs to expand the utility-customer relationship (i.e., “utility as a service provider”). As experience grows with these alternative approaches, there is an opportunity to evaluate the results and determine where to go next. Questions include: How effective have alternative approaches been? What emerging lessons and issues need to be resolved? How widely can these models be scaled going forward? This discussion group will explore these questions and will provide insight on how far utility business models have come, and how much farther they need to go.

In addition to addressing these pressing industry challenges, participants will work together to identify tools and tactics for a more collaborative and creative energy transition.

For more information on eLab’s unique problem-solving approach and past projects, see https://rmi.org/our-work/electricity/elab-electricity-innovation-lab/