I recently had the pleasure of attending the 8th Annual CUB Policy Conference in Portland and found myself in a room full of interesting and passionate people, immersed in discussion about deep decarbonization of our economy, with an emphasis on the utility industry.
It was clear throughout the conference that we, as an industry, struggle to define what the utility of the future looks like and, in a world of competing (and complex) stakeholder priorities, a 100% renewable or carbon-free future seems like a magical place that’s still just slightly out of reach. As we dug deeper into the evolution of the industry and where we go from here, a few key themes emerged.
- Choice & Flexibility: The evolution of the grid demands flexibility – whether it’s tied to distributed energy resources (think solar, storage, EVs), large-scale renewable projects, or renewable natural gas. And customers want choice – our utility partners hear it every day and are working hard to deliver.
- Connectivity & Collaboration: One breakout session explored the relationship of broadband to the evolution of the utility’s ability to engage with customers and explore smart meter technology, making onsite solar and EVs more feasible in rural communities. The idea of collaboration, a la Puget Sound Energy’s “TOGETHER” campaign was popular as well. This diverse mix of options – renewable generation, community engagement, regional alliances, and good policy – is clearly the way forward.
- Change of Pace: Whether it was from the voice of a progressive utility CEO or that of a nonprofit executive, a familiar mantra was “we’re moving too slowly, and we need to take urgent action on climate change.” Conversely, I also heard “we need to be careful not to move too quickly, we need discussion, and we need to continue to focus on reliability and affordability.” While this isn’t an either/or argument (because successful solutions can and must be reliable, affordable and reduce emissions) it seemed to be a dividing line, and a topic of ongoing conversation.
As the conference concluded, I found myself trying to answer my original question – how do we get to that magical, but slightly out of reach 100% renewable or carbon-free place? What actions do we need to take now and in the near future to get us there? How can we evolve quickly in a resource-constrained world? What I heard at the beginning of the conference was inspiring – game-changing – and served as positive momentum toward a low-carbon economy, but as the day went on it became clear that transformation will continue to be difficult.
What I saw at the CUB Policy Conference were utilities on the precipice of an incredible opportunity to redefine the way we generate and consume energy – whether it’s through renewable choices, distributed generation and market-place concepts, or by creating programs that support low-income segments and uplift communities. As the newest member of the Utility Partnership team at 3Degrees, I came out of the conference feeling energized about what’s happening in the Northwest, about the we work that we do today, and about how our partnerships can evolve as we, collectively, take urgent action on climate change.