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The Insider

The rise of cheap renewable energy sources is spurring power companies to rework their operations, as they seek to take advantage of the latest technological advances but also respond to growing demand for clean electricity at the consumer level.

Inside EPA’s Environment Next features exclusive coverage of how industry is responding to demand for renewables by adopting advanced technology, backing research into new innovations and remaking its infrastructure under local-government mandates.

Environment Next is a free service to our subscribers featuring wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy -- including interviews, in-depth reporting, and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate change. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts, including voluntary programs and government action outside EPA’s purview.

This week, we profiled the Energy Storage Association, which represents battery makers as well as companies in an array of industry sectors who see advances in the field as crucial to bolstering renewable energy:

Profile: Energy Storage Association
The U.S. energy storage industry is pursuing an ambitious target to deploy 100 gigawatts (GW) of storage by 2030 amid the sector’s rapid growth despite COVID-19 and other setbacks, according to Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the national trade group Energy Storage Association (ESA).

ESA’s more than 190 members include independent power producers, electric utilities, energy service companies, financiers, insurers, law firms, installers, manufacturers, component suppliers and integrators involved in globally deploying energy storage systems. Speakes-Backman announced the 100 GW target at the group’s Aug. 24-27 virtual annual conference.

In an exclusive interview with Environment Next, Speakes-Backman describes how policy and other factors -- such as a 70 percent decline in the total installed cost for storage systems -- have helped drive the sector’s growth. She also discusses the challenges and the policy support ESA is seeking for what environmentalists, the Department of Energy (DOE), renewable energy leaders, and others see as a vital component of the U.S. bid to decarbonize the electric grid and achieve “net zero” greenhouse gases by 2050 with widespread electrification of the economy.

The growth of renewable power is already transforming how electric utilities operate, as we saw in a case study on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its programs that work with customers to tailor the energy sources they buy from:

TVA Wrestles With Pressure To Expand Beyond ‘Traditional’ Utility Role
The rise of affordable wind and solar power paired with a new focus on promoting sustainability from individuals and businesses is spurring power companies to find new ways to deliver renewable energy to their customers beyond utilities’ traditional business model, say officials with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

“This is something we heard loud and clear from our customers -- they wanted more flexibility to purchase renewable energy,” Chris Hansen, TVA’s vice president of origination and renewables, tells Environment Next. TVA is “a corporate agency of the United States that provides electricity for business customers and local power companies serving 10 million people in parts of seven southeastern states,” according to its website.

The increasing demand for renewable power has led TVA to “stand up whole new departments” rather than merely replacing fossil fuel plants with solar, wind, hydropower and nuclear generation, Hansen said. “You want to be able to do these things at smaller scale . . . providing more local solutions to customers.”

TVA’s “local solutions” include connecting residential customers with contractors who install rooftop and other small-scale solar equipment, and its “Green Invest” program for industrial facilities that tailors the power sent to individual sites for each company’s specific clean-energy goals -- each of which represents a break from past practices for an industry that was once focused strictly on generating electricity cheaply and reliably, and delivering that power as a commodity to customers.

“It’s no longer a matter of ‘throw on a switch and be grateful that the lights come on.’ People want to know where their power is coming from,” Hansen said.

Puerto Rico recently adopted a plan to boost renewables in its recovery from the 2017 hurricane strikes that did serious damage to its power infrastructure, along with potentially phasing out the island’s only fossil-fuel power plant:

Puerto Rico Plans To Boost Renewable Power In Post-Hurricane Rebuild
Environmentalists are welcoming Puerto Rico’s decision to focus on solar power over fossil fuels as it rebuilds its power grid from devastating 2017 hurricanes, calling it a decisive step toward greenhouse gas reductions as well as climate resilience while vowing continued pressure to ensure strict implementation of the plan.

The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau’s (PREB) Aug. 24 approval of a new integrated resource plan (IRP) focused on recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 comes as many environmental groups and international organizations are pushing Congress to adopt similar investments in renewables as part of a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 crisis.

The efforts by the unincorporated territory of the United States could therefore provide a potential model for some U.S. policymakers on how to boost sustainability in pandemic recovery efforts.

PREB’s plan calls for the island’s sole power company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, to procure at least 3,500 megawatts of solar power capacity by 2025, and allocates $911 million for distributed solar power and battery storage -- which has emerged as a key factor in making intermittent renewables like wind and solar viable -- as well as funding for energy efficiency programs targeted at reducing electricity demand by 2 percent per year. It also orders PREPA to consider whether to shut down its sole coal-fired power plant, known as Palo Seco, or switch to gas starting in 2027.

And the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is continuing its study on the prospects for fusion power, which is attracting new attention from legislators despite long-standing doubts that the technology will ever be practical:

House Science Panel Staffers Question NAS On Fusion Plant Guidance
Staffers on the House science committee are questioning whether legislative guidance could assist a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel in its development of a report on what the United States needs to successfully build a nuclear fusion pilot plant (FPP).

The staffers told the panel during a Sept. 2 NAS virtual meeting they are working on additional guidance for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science and on bipartisan legislation that could, if the NAS panel felt it was necessary, include additional FPP guidance.

The meeting was the second held by the NAS “Committee on the Key Goals and Innovations Needed for a U.S. Fusion Pilot Plant,” which in its first meeting Aug. 26 underscored the essential role that private utilities will play in in efforts to make carbon-free nuclear fusion energy inexpensive and widespread. The FPP panel’s report recommending the necessary steps to design and run a first-ever FPP would likely be a key part of the U.S. strategy in what has become a global competition to lead in fusion energy.

NAS panel Chairman Richard Hawryluk asked the staffers to comment on the key opportunities and challenges they see for fusion and how the FPP report could be most valuable to the interested congressional committees and “the fusion enterprise as a whole."