Dervos 2023 stimulated some of the most thought-provoking discussion about distributed energy I’ve heard at a conference. Here are a few (of many) big ideas floated at the event hosted by the DER Task Force last week in Brooklyn, NY.
Heads up, solar entrepreneurs
Jigar Shah is the head of the US Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, so he sees a lot of innovative energy proposals. But what he hasn’t seen, to his surprise, is a business plan to solarize warehouse rooftops across the US. Shah referenced an Environment America report that found putting solar on warehouses and superstores could produce enough electricity to power 22% of all US households. The effort would probably prove cheaper than building utility-scale wind and solar because it circumvents the need for new transmission and distribution. Plus, when combined with batteries, the solar rooftops could provide an energy source to electrify fleets associated with the warehouses. Yet, even the smartest people in the room don’t seem to have this as “their front of mind business,” Shah said.
Blow up the Federal Power Act of 1935
Okay, so maybe this was said half in jest, but it points to a big problem that faces distributed energy projects — the inability to string wires across utility rights of way. In raising the idea of modifying the act, Lynne Kiesling, director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Regulatory Law & Economics, told a story about a combined heat and power plant (CHP) planned several years ago by Tom Casten, a well-known CHP developer and father of Congressman Sean Casten. The elder Casten was hired in the 1980s by the city of Chicago to build a CHP project for McCormick Place, a convention center that had just built a new wing on the other side of Lake Shore Drive. He worked out a least-cost design, but it required running wire from one side of the convention center to the other, from the east to west sides of Lake Shore Drive. “But you know what? Lake Shore Drive is a public thoroughfare. So he couldn’t build the CHP because he wasn’t allowed to string a wire,” Kiesling said. She called for modifying the Federal Power Act as it affects the distribution edge to allow for stringing wires over or under public rights of way.
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Move over solar+storage. Now we have pizza+VPP
Sam D’Amico, founder and CEO of Impulse Labs, became obsessed with the idea of cooking pizza faster, preferably in 45 seconds. But a standard household plug can’t deliver the kind of power required. Then he realized that a pizza oven run on a battery could significantly speed the time from oven to plate. From there, he started thinking about making other household appliances battery-operated, which led to his vision of aggregating household appliances into virtual power plants (VPPs).
About one in ten of America’s 104 million homes are undergoing a kitchen renovation at any given time, and appliances are replaced about every decade, according to D’Amico. If every appliance is battery operated, you could put 1.4 TWh of storage on the grid just through appliance upgrades over 10 years.
A light bulb went off, and D’Amico realized, “This is a thing that I should do.” So he launched Impulse 2 1/2 years ago to offer next-generation appliances, including battery-operated induction stoves. The startup received $20 million in Series A funding led by Josh Wolfe at Lux Capital, and joined by Fifth Wall, Lachy Groom, and Construct Capital. Lux Capital, Construct, and Lachy Groom also led a $5 million seed round in 2021.
Machine dreams for a better climate
Leah Stokes, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, described a project by Rewiring America to count the number of US machines run on fossil fuels. The answer is 1 billion.
“It kind of changes the way you think about the problem and the solution if you think at the machine level,” she said.
So rather than focus on subsidies or penalties, why not give people different and better machines?
Making a pickup truck more expensive will make people angry. “But if you instead say, we’re going to get you an F-150 Lightning that you can run a rave off of, they might be more interested,” Stokes said.
One market signal for all
How do we increase distributed energy resources (DERs) by an order of magnitude? In short, by unifying them at the grid resource level, said Andy Frank, founder and president of energy efficiency company Sealed.
While we tend to talk about DERs as one thing, they manifest in energy markets as balkanized technologies.
“So there’s an energy storage program and a rooftop solar program and an EV program and an energy efficiency program, which is the world I come from, and a demand response program. But it’s all basically the same thing, which is demand flexibility,” he said.
He called for using a total system benefit approach and calculating the value of distributed energy on the transmission and distribution grid.
“It can be one pure market signal that can be sent,” he said. “Right now the market is not getting those price signals. So for example, energy efficiency, which I consider to be basically the baseload of VPPs, is not valued as a real energy resource.”
Instead, energy efficiency is treated as “a nice thing to have, and the regulators pat everyone on the head and say, ‘Oh great, we have this 25 by 25 goal. You did it,’” Frank said.
In truth, energy efficiency is “creating massive permanent load reductions” that are supplanting the need to build energy infrastructure. But that cost savings is not factored into the market. “We’re not actually getting the price signals with a lot of the DERs,” Frank said.
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