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Q&A: Elynn Walter on the Sustainable Development Goal for Drinking Water

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Elynn Walter is the sustainability director at WASH Advocates, a Washington, D.C.-based initiative that aims to increase awareness of the global water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to those solutions throughout the developing world. She talks with Circle of Blue about the Sustainable Development subgoal to achieve universal drinking water access.

In a series of Q&As with water experts, Circle of Blue explores the significance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for water, how they can be achieved, and how they will be measured. We spoke with Elynn Walter of WASH Advocates about the 6.1 subgoal, which aims, by 2030, to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.”

Elynn Walter Sustainability Director WASH Advocates universal drinking water access Sustainable Development Goals Q&A Circle of Blue

Photo courtesy of Elynn Walter
Circle of Blue: In the 2015 Millennium Development Goals report, it says that 91 percent of the global population is using an “improved drinking water source” compared to 76 percent in 1990. What does that mean, and what has it taken to get to that point?
Elynn Walter: The improvement that we’ve seen over the years is that the number of people with first-time access to water has improved significantly—2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990, which is a huge accomplishment. It took a lot of work from governments in developed and developing countries, NGOs on the ground doing work, the faith-based community, civic organizations like Rotary and Lions clubs, and individuals around the world who were working side by side with communities in developing countries where water, sanitation, and hygiene were absent. More specifically it took things like creative business models, like the ones used by Safe Water Network and other partners that we work with, it took new approaches like Everyone Forever that was first introduced by Water for People to ensure equity and sustainability were components. It took local, national, and global public-private partnerships, and it also took advocates pushing the issue forward. But I would say, most of all it took time and collaboration and capacity building to ensure that governments were in the driving seat.

[An improved drinking water source] looks like different things in different places. I would say that the official definition for an “improved drinking water source” is one that, by nature of its construction or through active intervention, is protected from outside contamination, in particular from contamination with fecal matter. Sometimes that’s hand-dug wells, it might be boreholes, it might be protected springs, it may be piped water that’s coming from a source in a particular urban area.

Nonetheless, you still hear stories every day about communities struggling to get clean drinking water. Why is there an apparent disconnect between the global progress we’ve made and the reality that some communities live with every day?
Elynn Walter: The Millennium Development Goal that pertains to water was to halve the population without access to an improved drinking water source. The Sustainable Development Goals are about universal access and getting access to everyone. But what that means is that, until this point, there are still millions of people in the world that don’t have that first-time access because they were part of the half that didn’t receive access. The other issue is that the definition for “improved” does not address water quality or long-term regular access to water, either. So it doesn’t address sustainability. Therefore, again, there are millions of people around the world who may have received first-time access, but over time it stopped working, or wasn’t safe to drink in the first place.

I think the other issue is that the poorest of the poor are still the ones who haven’t been reached. I think we’ve reached many of the easy to reach communities, but now is the time to work toward trying to address those that are hardest reach, those who suffer the most, including those with disability, or who are located in remote areas, and women and children who often walk miles to collect the water. I know that in the U.S., the recent Water for the World Act tries to address some of the inequities to ensure that universal coverage is for everyone, and not just for half of the population.

What will it take to achieve this idea of universal and equitable access to clean drinking water?
Elynn Walter: As I said before, I think time, collaboration, and capacity building to ensure that governments in developing countries are prioritizing WASH, budgeting appropriately for it, and driving progress toward universal access are definitely key components. I think holding those governments accountable is another piece, and just as we have the freedom to lobby our government here in the U.S., citizens in developing countries and their advocacy plays a key role in supporting, challenging, and holding their governments accountable. And developing country budgets are what I would consider the last ingredient. There needs to be an increase in public sector finance to leverage public-private partnerships and the funding that can come from that, targeting budgets to communities in regions of greatest need, and all of that takes political will and government leadership and action. I think what it’s going to take is a real focus on developing country governments and providing them the support that is needed to empower them and have them show leadership in this area.
The goal states that drinking water access should be both “equitable” and “affordable”—why are these qualifiers important?
Elynn Walter: I think currently the poorest and most marginalized populations are the most difficult to reach, and they are often overlooked. Universal access means everyone, so to specifically mention those two words ensures that those marginalized populations won’t be left behind. I think that’s one reason that both of those words are really key. For example, in many countries I think women and girls are often the ones responsible for collecting water, which keeps them out of school and out of work and is physically taxing on their bodies. The typical water container weighs more than 40 pounds [18 kilograms], and women walk such far distances, often miles, to get to the water source. And water often costs more in poorer communities, especially in rural or remote areas or urban slums. I think including these words is a mechanism for measurement and accountability for governments in developing countries. Since these two words are included, there will have to be indicators that are associated to measure progress or the lack of progress. Therefore, the two words I think help ensure that the governments are accountable to the entire population, not just the low-hanging fruit or those that are easiest to reach.
Drinking Water Progress
drinking water access Millennium Development Goal improved drinking water Sustainable Development Goals Q&A Circle of Blue

Graphic by Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue
Source: United Nations
Where do the biggest challenges to drinking water access still exist?
Elynn Walter: I think that sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia are often lagging behind, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Even though globally we’ve met the goal for improved water, sub-Saharan Africa has not. Individual countries have, but not as an entire region. I think that that’s a big challenge. I think there are specific countries that are doing much better. Countries like Ghana in West Africa have moved, significantly, the needle in both the access to water and the quality of water that they’re providing. I think a lot of that has to do with government leadership and engagement and prioritization of that as an issue. They still have time to go, and still have a lot of work that needs to get done, but I would say they’ve got some good progress that they’re doing. There’s progress in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, so all over Asia, the Philippines—again, the system isn’t perfect, but their progress is definitely something to mention.

I think the biggest challenges I see geographically are not within countries of greatest need, but in communities within those countries that don’t have access. You may have a country that’s making quite a bit of progress, but as I said before, those easy to reach are the ones who are getting that access. So how to reach those populations that are geographically located far away from urban or peri-urban areas, or are located in very rural or in conflict areas, is a challenge.

I think there is also the water quality component. Even those places where they do have access, I think the water quality is still a huge challenge, because it wasn’t a focus of the Millennium Development Goals. Another big challenge I see is in long-term operation and maintenance. In order to get sustainability, and to achieve sustainable water points and water access and behavior change around the way people use water, I think it’s really important to look at who’s responsible for managing that water—if it’s the community, or the government, or a combined process, or a local water utility. Making sure that those roles and responsibilities, and the responsibility for the funding for that, is something that is clearly laid out from the very beginning.

As countries, NGOs, and individuals move forward to tackle this goal, what do you think are the most important things they should keep in mind?
Elynn Walter: Because I come from an advocacy organization, my answer is advocacy. I think everyone has a voice and needs to use that voice to ensure that no one is left behind, that they are able to speak for those that don’t have a voice, or that they empower everyone within a country to make sure that their voice is heard. That’s my big message. Advocacy is really key, and whether you’re an NGO, whether you’re an individual, whether you live in the United States, or you live in Nairobi, or you live in a rural village in Madagascar, everybody has the opportunity to voice their opinion about why it’s important for them to have it.

The post Q&A: Elynn Walter on the Sustainable Development Goal for Drinking Water appeared first on Circle of Blue WaterNews.


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The Stream, September 29: NASA Announces Evidence For Flowing Water On Mars

The  Global Rundown

The Global Rundown

It is highly likely that liquid water is flowing on Mars, according to NASA, renewing hopes that life may exist on the red planet. Shell is discontinuing its program to explore for oil in the Arctic. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are making progress toward sharing the Nile River. Thousands of people in Taiwan are without water after Typhoon Dujuan hit the country. The majority of residents in Ireland say they will pay their new water bills, while an engineer in Tanzania hopes his water filter will help communities secure safe drinking water.

“We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’ But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, great opportunities in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”–James L. Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, on the agency’s announcement that it found evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars. The water is likely salty, scientists said. (The New York Times)

By the Numbers

By The Numbers

$7 billion Amount the Shell oil company spent on efforts to explore for oil in the Arctic. The company announced Monday that it would put exploration in the region on hold. Guardian

78 percent Survey respondents in Ireland who said they have already paid or plan on paying new, controversial water bills. The Irish Times


Science, Studies, And Reports

An engineer in Tanzania has created a water filter that uses nanotechnology to remove virtually all bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms. Efforts to make the filter available to communities in Africa are being funded by a grant from the U.S. government. Reuters

On the Radar

On The Radar

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are making progress toward an agreement to share and manage water along the Nile River, according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They argue that the countries’ efforts, while positive, will also depend on international support and accurate information about factors such as rainfall variation and water quality. The New York Times

Typhoon Dujuan brought heavy rainfall to Taiwan Monday and left hundreds of thousands of homes without water and electricity. The storm also flooded roads near Taipei and prompted the country’s financial markets to close Tuesday. Reuters

The post The Stream, September 29: NASA Announces Evidence For Flowing Water On Mars appeared first on Circle of Blue WaterNews.


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Tesla Unveils the Model X to Gushing Reviews

Wired: Tesla’s Model X Is Here and It’s as Awesome as We Hoped

The world’s first luxury electric SUV is gorgeous. It’s futuristic. And once again, Tesla Motors is redefining the electric vehicle.

The Silicon Valley automaker has teased us for years with the Model X, and tonight it finally gave the world its first look at the production model, then handed six customers the keys.

Those people now own a $130,000 electric vehicle that will go 250 miles on a charge, carry seven people and haul more stuff than anyone but a hoarder might want with him. And although the X shares much of its DNA with the impressive Model S P90D sedan, in many ways it eclipses that phenomenal car. It’s not just the design, which is futuristic without being weird. It’s not just the performance, which isholy shit fast. And it’s not even the dramatic “falcon” doors that lift like the wings of a bird.

It’s how all of those features come together in a vehicle that somehow makes an SUV not just cool, but desirable.

Politco Pro: Carbon Capture Technology or Your Money Back

The Department of Energy will send $2.48 billion back to the Treasury this week. Pro’s Darius Dixon has the story: “The refunds amount to a small portion of the $31.8 billion sent to DOE in the massive 2009 stimulus law, but they are emblematic of the struggles ‘clean coal’ has faced in recent years. Of the money that DOE is returning, $1.27 billion was set aside for carbon capture projects that failed to win agency approval because of cost overruns, tricky negotiations and lengthy regulatory hurdles.

Reuters: So Far, Less Pain Than Feared as U.S. Shale Firms Renew Loans

A number of U.S. shale oil and gas companies are securing unchanged or even increased credit allotments during their semi-annual loan reviews, defying expectations that banks would slash small firms’ credit lines in response to low crude prices.

According to a Reuters review of disclosures made by 19 independent U.S. shale oil and gas companies since Aug. 1, at least 11 have said their borrowing bases have been or will be maintained or increased. In contrast, just five talked about cuts.

It is too early to tell if the whole sector will emerge equally largely unscathed from the reviews. Many more companies from a batch of about 60 U.S. independents typically tracked by investment banks will probably make disclosures after the usual loan reset deadline of Oct. 1.

International Business Times: Push For Clean Energy Could Help Brazil’s Ailing Economy, Analysts Say

With an economy in recession and a sprawling corruption case eroding public trust in government by the day, good news has been sorely lacking in Brazil this year. But President Dilma Rousseff elicited cheers from around the world this week as she submitted a set of pledges on climate change to the United Nations, making Brazil the first major developing nation to announce specific targets to rein in carbon emissions ahead of the highly anticipated climate change conference in Paris later this year.

The announcement from Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest economy and seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, was a major step to building momentum for a global climate agreement. But some analysts say the plan’s push for clean energy could also present a rare ray of hope to boost jobs, economic growth and credibility in Rousseff’s government as Brazil continues to battle one of its biggest economic and political crises in years.

Wall Street Journal: Jeb Bush’s Energy Plan Includes Dropping Oil-Export Ban

In his third policy announcement this month aimed at accelerating economic growth, Jeb Bush is calling to remove the nation’s 40-year-old ban on oil exports, approve the Keystone XL pipeline and eliminate a raft of environmental regulations.

Mr. Bush is expected to outline his energy platform Tuesday afternoon at Rice Energy, a Pennsylvania oil and gas company. Mr. Bush is promising that this agenda, along with his plans unveiled earlier this month to lower tax rates and roll back regulations on business, would generate 4% annual economic growth — a target the U.S. hasn’t hit in a sustained way since the late 1990s.


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GE’s Digital Power Plant: The Natural-Gas Contender to Grid Batteries

General Electric is sinking billions of dollars into natural gas turbines and power plants as the answer to the world’s need for cleaner and more flexible power. It’s also investing heavily in software to manage every aspect of electricity generation, distribution and consumption, in the form of its internet of things (IOT) offering, which it calls the “industrial internet.”

On Tuesday, GE put those two businesses together in the form of its Digital Power Plant offering. The IOT-equipped, cloud-supported software suite aims to squeeze increased flexibility and efficiency out of existing and new gas-fired power plants, to the tune of $50 million to $230 million in added value per plant.

GE also announced its first Digital Power Plant customers: New Jersey’s Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) for its gas-fired generators, and multi-state generator Exelon for nuclear, gas and wind power. The white paper accompanying Tuesday’s announcement mentions a “digital wind farm” with $100 million in potential savings, alongside the emphasis on natural gas. 

GE has made a big push into next-generation gas turbines that can ramp up and down more efficiently, helping to lower the costs of bringing additional flexibility to the grid. That’s something that utilities and grid operators are looking for to help manage the intermittency of wind and solar power, whether from minute to minute or over the course of an entire day.

GE claims its software can make these generators “behave like a virtual battery,” Ganesh Bell, GE’s chief digital officer, said in a Tuesday briefing. That could open up new opportunities in providing flexible capacity and quick-responding ancillary services for grid markets, depending on what type of power plant you’re starting with.

GE adds asset performance, power plant operations, and linkages to energy market and financial management software to allow this flexibility to be built into a company’s entire decision-making process. All of this, in turn, is supported by its data analytics platform, built to analyze and optimize every piece of its equipment over the internet someday. The company is holding its Minds + Machines conference this week, and is inviting partners to check out its white paper later Tuesday and come up with applications to build on the platform, he said.  

All told, this improved asset performance, reduced fuel consumption, decreased unplanned downtime and maximized operational efficiency should yield up to $230 million over 20 years for one of GE’s next-generation power plants, according to Steve Bolze, president and CEO of GE Power & Water. Existing baseload plants could get about $50 million in value over a 20-year period, Bell said. GE equipment generates about one-fifth of the world’s electricity today, and the company sees a $75 billion opportunity in its existing natural-gas power plant customer base, Bolze said.

GE competes with Siemens, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power and acquisition target Alstom for the world’s natural-gas turbine business, and it’s not the only one that’s been working on this kind of flexibility and efficiency in its newest models. Nor is it the only company promising a wraparound software-and-device-connectivity platform to better manage them.

While GE has been surging on natural gas, it’s been retrenching on batteries — at least on building its own. In January, it announced layoffs and slowdowns in production at the factory that makes its Durathon batteries, a sodium-ion chemistry that GE has spent four years and $170 million building and deploying, at small scale so far. Its most recent grid-scale energy storage projects have been as a systems integrator of lithium-ion batteries.

At the same time, GE has been downplaying the cost-competitiveness of utility-scale batteries against cheap natural gas for broader grid needs. “I would argue the best storage is gas in the pipeline and fast-reacting turbines — and understanding when that renewable generation is going to fall off,” Mark Wight, director of strategy, marketing and operations for GE Energy Ventures, said last year. 


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Moody’s: Cheap Batteries Could be ‘Credit Negative’ for Utilities and Power Generators

Batteries for grid-scale energy storage are getting cheaper all the time, and could be economically competitive without subsidies for certain key applications by decade’s end. That’s good news for utility customers and the power grid, but bad news for merchant power generators and utilities, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report released last week.

“The reason I decided to write this paper is the likelihood that batteries may also go the way of solar panels, in terms of dramatic price reductions,” lead author Swami Venkataraman said.

“Batteries are still not there without any form of subsidies.” But lithium-ion battery prices are falling faster than even the most rosy government projections, lending credence to claims like Tesla’s that it can reach $100 to $200 per kilowatt-hour by the end of this decade, he said.

That could make many storage applications cost-competitive for key grid and customer-facing applications, said Venkataraman. But cost savings and revenue opportunities for battery owners and operators will come at the expense of power companies like Calpine, NRG Energy and Dynegy, which could see erosion in capacity costs and reduced opportunity to make money on the margins of energy market volatility.

Meanwhile, regulated utilities like Consolidated Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and Hawaiian Electric could lose the money they’re collecting on commercial and industrial customer demand charges, lowering revenues and increasing pressure to shift costs to other customers — or reform their tariff structures to take storage into account. 

Venkataraman uses real energy-market and demand-charge data to peg the subsidy-free “breakeven” costs at which batteries could be cost-competitive in two select applications — behind-the-meter demand reduction for buildings, and peak power supply for grid markets. These aren’t economically viable today without subsidies or firm utility contracts, he noted. But they’re also much larger than today’s cost-competitive applications for batteries, such as mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM’s frequency regulation market.

Here’s the chart for demand charges, which are costs paid by commercial and industrial customers based not on how many kilowatt-hours they use in a month, but rather on the kilowatt peak hit during any 15-minute period. Batteries can inject power to prevent those peaks for significant utility-bill savings, and companies like Stem, Green Charge Networks and SolarCity and Tesla are installing megawatts’ worth of projects like these in California, New York and Hawaii. 

Simply by charging with cheap nighttime power and discharging to mitigate demand charges, batteries can hit subsidy-free breakeven status at about $500 to $600 per kilowatt-hour in New York City, the country’s most lucrative market, Venkataraman said. That’s close to the $700 per kilowatt-hour all-in cost for SolarCity’s behind-the-meter peak-shaving system using Tesla Powerpack batteries, according to the U.S. Energy Storage Monitor report from GTM Research and the Energy Storage Association.

“Another 20 percent decrease in prices, and you could be in the zone of viability in New York,” he said. Other markets, like California, Hawaii and Connecticut, aren’t there yet, but will be if prices drop as expected, he said.

The customer classes used in this calculation make up a significant portion of a utility’s revenues, he noted — about 10 percent to 15 percent of total revenues for Con Ed, for example. The report didn’t calculate how much batteries could reduce those revenues by shaving demand charges, but it could be significant, he said.

The world of energy markets, capacity procurements and other grid-scale applications represents the second big future market opportunity for batteries, albeit a far more nebulous one. To date, only a handful of projects have taken on the challenge of replacing an equivalent unit of flexible grid generation — typically natural gas, although demand response and distributed energy resources are also emerging competitors — with batteries.

The few that have, like AES Energy Storage’s 100-megawatt, 400 megawatt-hour lithium-ion battery complex for Southern California Edison, have been built under power-purchase agreements that guarantee a 20-year price for their services, rather than for competition on the open market. And according to Moody’s analysis, battery prices will have to fall to $100 to $300 per kilowatt-hour to compete against other “capacity” resources,

That means that “battery peakers will initially be based either on power-purchase agreements, or be a part of a utility’s rate base,” the report found. This might appear to give merchant power generators like Dynegy, Calpine and NRG Energy some room to breathe if they’re worried about batteries replacing their peaker plants.

But these merchants are also threatened by cheaper batteries in another way, Moody’s pointed out: the likelihood that more and more customers will use them to shave peaks, smooth loads, and otherwise decrease the cost and price volatility of grid energy.

This is what storage is supposed to do, and it’s why regulators support it as an alternative to more expensive, carbon-intensive resources. But “high peak-pricing is a lucrative and important source of margin for merchant generators,” the report notes, and “as such hours dwindle or as pricing peaks flatten, merchant profitability will also decline.”

To prepare for this future, more merchant generators could follow NRG Energy’s lead and get into the energy storage and behind-the-meter energy management business. But Moody’s predicts that “the potential impact of lower capacity prices and reduced price margins will outweigh the incremental revenue that most large merchant generators will receive from investing in battery plants.”

Overall, the effect will be “credit negative” for these companies, as declines in future revenues lead to reduced expectations of being able to service future debt, pushing agencies like Moody’s to lower their credit ratings. “The timing and magnitude of the credit impact would vary, depending on the extent of battery penetration.”

Regulated utilities also face losses, which could lead them to increase rates for customers that don’t have storage, or impose new fixed charges on battery-equipped customers, much as they’re doing with solar PV-equipped customers in Arizona and potentially in California.

GTM Research analyst Ravi Manghani noted that “there already are several utility rate structures today that calculate demand charges based on non-synchronous peak load. There is no reason why other utilities couldn’t move toward different tariff structures.”

Venkataraman noted that, if behind-the-meter batteries can cost-competitively substitute for gas-fired peaker plants or other more capital-intensive and polluting alternatives, “even though there are only some customers that are using batteries, the on-peak costs for all customers go down.” Regulated utilities could use this reduction in overall peak power costs to help defray the cost shift to non-battery equipped customers.

And if they can capture the benefits of storage — say, by getting a piece of the benefits that come from replacing expensive grid upgrades with cheaper storage — “the costs of running the entire utility grid will also decline,” he said. 


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How Open Platforms With Demand Flexibility Offer Utilities New Revenue Opportunities

The fastest-growing companies in America generate billions of dollars from platform business models that match suppliers directly with customers, free from the debt burden of ownership of physical assets. In spite of the success of such models, most electric utilities are heading in the opposite direction and maximizing capital investment as a vehicle to maximize returns. 

In an era of declining sales and explosive growth of distributed energy resources (DERs), utilities should look to other industries — from transportation to hospitality to apps to music — to figure out what a platform-based future looks like. That future is likely to have less capital investment and more focus on revenue opportunities that provide connection and integration of services for customers.

The predominant utility market strategy is a result of the incumbent utility regulatory framework, leading utilities to overinvest in the grid capacity and underutilize distributed resources. Most investor-owned utilities create shareholder value every time they make capital investments, regardless of the value of that investment to society or in the market. In other words: utilities build it, rate-base it, and get a regulated return on it. Regulators authorized this system under the assumption that the grid directly and indirectly powers the economy, keeping rates aligned with sales. 

In several states, that assumption is now under fire. For decades, we’ve seen a steady decoupling of GDP with growth of the grid, with primary energy consumption per dollar consistently falling. Added to that, utility revenue is likely unable to keep pace with rising peak power capacity costs, the estimated $1.5 trillion in costs needed to maintain and upgrade aging infrastructure, and the looming costs to retire coal plants approaching the end of their useful life.

Utilities have not kept pace with the rapid reductions in installed DER costs and DER financial models leading to exponential growth in interconnected assets on the customer side of the meter. Consequently, utilities will be forced to recover billions of dollars of increasing infrastructure costs from a declining sales base, indicating retail rates will likely rise for customers.    

First-mover states such New York, Hawaii and California are tackling this problem by investigating how to align utility investments with a more efficient grid that relies less on peak power from centralized assets, and more on integrating DERs into enhanced planning, grid operations, and market operations. New York is positioning its electric utilities to serve as distributed system platform providers, shifting from traditional wires (assets) companies to enabling and providing innovative services via a platform.  

However, there are fundamental distinctions between an electricity and software platform that policymakers are considering. The grid is physically interconnected, and service reliability is a public safety necessity. If an Uber driver doesn’t show up, it is inconvenient, but not nearly as disruptive as the power going out. In light of these factors, what might a platform-based utility service actually look like? 

A platform for demand flexibility

Demand flexibility — the intelligent management of customer demand based on fluctuating grid prices and changing grid needs — has the potential to generate $13 billion per year of avoided grid investments and up to 40 percent savings on customer bills.

The platform operator’s role would be to make the market for demand flexibility, and set price signals to competitive suppliers of load resources. The platform will allow providers to compensate customers for the opportunity to flexibly manage DER assets that are in development across the industry.

Think of a provider that pays you to rent and manage your thermostat, similar to how Uber interfaces with cars and drivers. The provider might pay you to precool your home to avoid peak power during hot summer days, or might also pay you to use more electricity to power flexible appliances like hot water heaters during off-peak hours, when more central renewables like wind farms in West Texas are available.

During peak-demand events, or during conditions where supply exceeds demand, the service provider would offer payment incentives to customers to shift their electricity loads and better align supply and demand on the grid. The key for the platform is to directly connect demand flexibility suppliers to customers, make the service simple for customers to understand, and offer customers a means to earn revenue (or avoid costs) effortlessly.

A platform for data-as-a-service

In order to attract DER services and investment in the utility platform, utilities need to investigate the market value of data. While there are critical customer data privacy and security issues that require special attention, utilities may be sitting on a gold mine of customer and system data. Much of this data has been collected via monopoly power access.

Therefore, the data should be made available transparently through standardized customer interfaces such as Green Button Connect through a single platform provider like Smart Meter Texas. Companies like Opower, Tendril, Simple Energy, and Spirae are already providing value-added services to customers and utilities using customer data, and potentially greater value may be created through streamlined access to system planning and operations data. 

Enhanced data analytical services should be monetized and can help identify demand side opportunities that offer bill savings to customers, as well as grid services to grid operators. Additionally, customer data can open value propositions across the energy value chain, such as linking utilities with home appliance manufacturers in order to provide home diagnostic information.

Even if granular location-, time-, and attribute-based customer data is not available, utility system operational data (e.g., SCADA, substation peak loading, power quality data, customer complaint data) can help identify congestion, power quality problems, and areas of the system where DERs can provide services the grid needs. 

A platform enabled by democratized access

A key issue with platform services relates to control of the interface. In the 2000s, Apple became the largest gatekeeper of the music industry and later the app economy via iTunes and the iPhone. The utility industry is similar in how it protects its power over the meter, the technology enabling the customer interface to the platform, or in Apple’s case, iOS. 

In the digital world, measurement, verification and settlement occurs directly between the app or product supplier and the platform, but critically, these platforms also enable billing directly between the app and the customer. Imagine buying a song on iTunes from Austin-based folk singer-songwriter Shakey Graves. The payment goes from customer to Shakey, and Apple gets a small cut for providing the platform (iTunes).  

While utilities have long fought to extend their monopoly power over control of the meter, this position is shortsighted in a platform model. The upside to competitive platform access and competitive enabling technologies (e.g., metering, or chips embedded in inverters and smart thermostats) will be much greater than the downside of losing control.

Utilities can operate a platform via a standardized interface, and speak the same language to any service provider, regardless of who “owns” the interface. An open platform can maximize utility revenues from transactions between a competitive mix of service providers and customers. 

Challenges ahead

As considered in the recently issued Market Design Platform Technology working group report as part of the New York REV proceeding, the structure of the market frames the platform operation. For example, the initial market construct recommended in the recent MDPT report is to connect one buyer (the DSP) with many suppliers (DER providers) to provide distribution services such as capacity relief and distribution ancillary services.

However, both the types of products, as well as the market structure, are expected to evolve over time, moving from monopsony to (potentially) a many-supplier-to-many-buyer construct (like the digital examples described above). This future evolution underscores the importance of monetizing the platform that connects suppliers to customers.

Utilities and their regulators are inherently risk-averse, and the transition to a platform model requires visionary management and regulation that embraces change. However, if the dramatic loss of revenue and share value exhibited by many European utilities portend what is to come here in the U.S., the alternative is equally problematic, including increased capex and likely increases to rates.

Fortunately, the utility industry can start to turn via incremental changes in course. Utility demonstrations of platform models are perfect examples of stepwise change. Those utilities that pivot first toward a platform model have the opportunity to lead the market. 


This piece was originally published at RMI’s Outlet blog and was reprinted with permission.

Matthew Crosby is a manager with RMI’s electricity practice, where he serves as project manager for the New York Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding and is involved with RMI eLab. Matthew focuses on regulatory and energy policy development to facilitate market-oriented energy delivery disruption and product innovation.


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Sizing the US Solar-Plus-Storage Market

It’s early days for the U.S. solar-plus-storage market — less than 0.1 percent of 2014 solar PV installations were paired with storage. In fact, the penetration rate of storage in solar installations has gone down year-over-year for the past three years, although the overall solar-plus-storage market has been flat in capacity terms. But in spite of this small share, industry activity and discussion around this technology combination have been frantic.

There are a number of drivers for the increased level of industry and customer interest. Several technologies, led by lithium-ion, continue along rapid commercialization paths, bringing down costs and providing one of the biggest drivers for the industry.

FIGURE: Solar-Storage Use Cases

Source: U.S. Solar Market Insight, Q2 2015

Along with cost reductions, solar-plus-storage value streams continue to advance from traditional backup to multiple use cases. These benefits vary in three ways: frequency of use, discharge duration, and the key beneficiary.

Generally speaking, benefits that have more frequent use improve the overall economics of the system. These benefits are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although there are limitations based on technology, availability of charge, frequency and timing of multiple applications. Apart from the technical constraints, front-of-meter benefits have generally not been monetized, except in a few markets at pilot scale.

Market rules and policies are still evolving in reaction to the proliferation of distributed energy resources. But across the major state markets with attractive incentive landscapes, the value proposition of solar-plus-storage varies by customer segment. The use cases can range from homeowners optimizing rooftop solar compensation in response to net energy metering reforms and time-of-use retail rates to peak demand shaving for commercial customers.

As electricity market designs are re-evaluated, such as in New York’s REV program, storage both behind and in front of the meter is poised to provide services to the end customer and the grid as a capacity resource.

Solar-plus-storage deployments totaled 4 megawatts (DC) in 2014, but GTM Research expects them to grow to 22 megawatts in 2015 and reach 769 megawatts by 2020. California is expected to be the biggest solar-plus-storage market, with 422 megawatts installed in 2020 alone. In dollar terms, we expect the market to grow to $246 million in 2015 and $643 million in 2016. By 2020, the annual U.S. solar-plus-storage market will be $3.1 billion.


This is an excerpt from the U.S. Solar Market Insight report.


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Climate Model Shows Limits of Global Emissions Pledges

By Alison Kanski

The Paris climate talks are a little more than two months away and most of the world’s big carbon emitters have submitted their climate pledges. That’s the good news. The bad news is that despite many countries pledging to cut carbon emissions in the coming decades, the current commitments may not be enough to limit warming to the world’s agreed upon goal of 2°C (3.6°F).

The pledges have been rolling in all year. On Monday, Brazil said it would cut emissions to 43 percent of 2005 levels in the next 15 years, stop illegal deforestation and reforest 30 million acres of land. Deforestation is a major source of Brazil’s carbon emissions.

The pledge puts Brazil in the company of 82 other countries — including the U.S., China, and other large carbon polluters in the European Union — that have submitted their climate pledges to the United Nations.

To gauge the effectiveness of the proposed emissions cuts, the nonprofit group Climate Interactive has put them into a climate model to show just how much the current goals would limit warming.

The results are mixed. The current emissions pledges will decrease warming. In a business as usual scenario, warming could go as high as 4.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100. The current goals would drop that to about 3.5°C of warming, one degree lower.

While that is progress, it’s still pretty far from the goal to limit warming by 2°C. The 2°C limit was adopted by the European Union in 2009 and has since become the benchmark for warming for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN.

If warming rises above 2°C, the effects of climate change would only intensify. Extreme weather like droughts and large tropical cyclones would become more common, fragile ecosystems like coral reefs would be at risk of destruction and polar ice melting would swamp many coastal cities over the next century.

Several countries’ climate emissions goals,, including Russia, Canada, Japan and Australia,  have all been rated inadequate by Climate Action Tracker. More ambitious goals from these relatively large emitters could bring the world closer to the 2°C goal.



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IEA Executive Director and Mexican Secretary of Energy Open New Chapter in Cooperation

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In his first visit to Mexico since becoming International Energy Agency Executive Director, Dr. Fatih Birol met on 28 September with Mexican Secretary of Energy Pedro Joaquín Coldwell and discussed ways to take IEA-Mexico engagement and co-operation to the next level.


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Georgia Power to finalize coal ash pond closure schedule

The company is in the pre-closure process at several retired or converted coal-fired generation sites


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