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Topic: Utilities

[Episode #121] – Winning and Losing the Policy Game

Conventional thinking is that policy supports the advancement of clean energy gradually and progressively, with hard-won gains setting up further success over time. And sometimes, it does play out this way. But sometimes it doesn’t, too. Our guest in this episode, Dr. Leah Stokes of UC Santa Barbara, describes the policymaking around energy transition as a matter of “organized combat” between clean energy advocates and incumbents in the utility and fossil fuel sectors — a process of combat which produces winners and losers. And rather than be shy about that, she argues, advocates for climate action and energy transition need to learn from their opponents and get much more organized and serious about winning policy battles.

In this two-hour interview, we talk through the history of clean energy policymaking, and how it was rolled back or thwarted, in four U.S. states. Step by step and case by case, we can learn from her original research what the winning tactics are, and how to lock in victories when we win them. This episode is critical listening for anyone involved in policymaking, regulatory interventions, crafting legislation, or activism.

Geek rating: 3

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[Episode #117] – Climate Science Part 12b – Improving Climate Modeling

Are the climate change scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) accurately representing our likely futures, or are they rooted in outdated data that doesn’t represent the progress we’re already making on energy transition? Is the world on a “business as usual” path to climate doom in a world that’s 5°C warmer, or are we actually within reach of limiting warming to 2°C by the end of this century?

In this episode, we ask two experts to debate these questions in the very first extended three-way conversation on this podcast. Representing the energy analyst’s critique of the IPCC models is Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder Michael Liebreich. And representing the IPCC modeling work is Dr. Nico Bauer, an integrated assessment modeler with the Potsdam Institute who has helped develop the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways used in the IPCC framework.

This episode is part two of that three-hour conversation. Part one was featured in Episode #116. Together, those two episodes make Part 12 of our mini-series on climate science.

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #102] – Transition as Wildfire Adaptation in California

California’s largest utility is bankrupt as a result of its liability for starting some of California’s largest and deadliest wildfires. Now the utility, its shareholders and investors, and the state itself are trying to figure out how to reorganize the company, manage its wildfire risk, and the pay for its future liabilities in an era of a warming climate and enduring droughts. But that’s just where this story starts, not where it ends. In reality, all of the state’s utilities need a backstop for their wildfire liabilities, and de-energizing transmission lines isn’t the only solution. In fact, these questions go beyond the borders of a single state, and touch on a host of deeper issues, including insurance underwriting rules, building and planning and zoning rules, and even how the grid itself will be operated. And it turns out that many of the same solutions that help us in the energy transition can also help us mitigate the risks of wildfires, and adapt to our new climate reality. We are fortunate to have Michael Wara as our guest in this episode—a bona fide expert on the subject who is a member of the state-appointed wildfire commission in California—to help us think through this complex web of issues and understand how to start plotting a new path into the future.

Geek rating: 2

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[Episode #94] – Integrated Decentralized Power Systems

As more distributed energy resources arrive unbidden onto the power grid, they are increasingly requiring us not to just think about new utility business models, but to radically rethink what a utility might look like. What if millions of distributed resources become the dominant resources, and the grid assumes a subordinate role as a residual supplier of energy? What if the control of the system is also decentralized, through the actions of millions of devices? What if the roles of transmission system operators and the distribution system are diminished as their responsibilities are distributed across all those devices? And how will utilities, power market operators, regulators, legislators, and local officials deal with a radical shift in their roles and responsibilities? These are the questions that our guest in this episode—an 18-year veteran of wholesale power market design at the California ISO—thinks about, and he shares those deep thoughts with us in this wonky yet heady discussion.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #79] – Community Choice Aggregations (CCAs)

What are community choice aggregations, or CCAs, and why are they suddenly playing such a huge role in wholesale power markets? Since the first one launched in California in 2010, it was followed by Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, Lancaster Choice Energy in 2015, and both CleanPowerSF and Peninsula Clean Energy in San Mateo County in 2016. And now, in 2018, CCAs have taken a major share of power procurement in California, which is growing rapidly: There are now 16 CCAs across 18 counties in California, which currently provide about 12% of the state’s electricity, and by the middle of next year, they are expected to serve 40% of utility customers in California. They’re also spreading beyond California, to five other states, with another eight expected to launch in 2018 alone.

And while that’s great for local control of power procurement, it’s also causing concern: As customers have defected from investor owned utilities to CCAs in California, utility investment in large wind and solar plants in the states has crashed. And the state regulator is now worrying about whether future power procurement will be adequate, and whether CCAs will have sufficient oversight. But there is more to the story, and our guest in this episode is well equipped to address the many questions swirling around the role of CCAs in power markets, having been one of the people responsible for launching them!

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #73] – Regulatory Capture

Utility regulators are playing an increasingly important role in steering the energy transition of the power grid. However, many regulators aren’t equipped to sort through arguments put forward by competing interests, because they often need to consider highly technical questions that only a power system engineer, or a market design expert could properly evaluate. Some regulators are simply political appointees who may or may not have the appropriate technical expertise, while others are elected by the public, who in turn may not be able to evaluate the technical expertise of the people they are electing. As a result, it is quite common for regulators to depend on the guidance of the companies they are supposed to regulate, and for those companies to seek as much leverage or control over their regulators as they can get—a problem known as regulatory capture.

In this episode we’ll delve into the problem of regulatory capture, and what might be done about it, with the help of Gary Wolfram, a professor and the Director of Economics and Political Economy at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He has published extensively on public policy and taxpayer rights, on the role of government in capitalist market economies, and on the governance and incentive structures of utilities…and we promise that this interview will be a lot more accessible and interesting than this dry description may make it sound!

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #38] – Getting from Here to There

There’s nothing to give you a little perspective on what’s happening on planet Earth like getting off it and seeing its beauty—and it’s human-caused destruction—from space. In this wide-ranging interview, former astronaut Jay Apt, a professor of technology and business at Carnegie Mellon University, shares some insights from his voluminous body of research on energy transition topics, including: what the power grid of the future could look like; how we’ll balance it with increasing levels of renewable energy; how to smooth out the fluctuations in wind farm power output; utility business model evolution and resource adequacy planning; what the optimal amount of storage on the PJM Interconnection might be; the economics of behind-the-meter battery systems; the potential future for EVs providing services to the grid; whether carbon capture and sequestration technology and geoengineering can play significant roles in addressing climate change; the new era of electricity de- and re-regulation; and of course, what it’s like to look down on Earth from space. You’ll never see an hour go by as quickly as this one.

Geek rating: 8

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[eLab Extra #1] – Next Generation Demand Response

Full Episode

This is a special edition of the Energy Transition Show with Chris Nelder, recorded in December 2016 at RMI’s eLab Annual Summit in Austin, Texas.

Can utilities disrupt themselves, or does it take an outside force? How can demand response technologies—including simply informing customers of their electricity usage—help reduce demand peaks on the electricity system and reduce costs for all ratepayers? And what kinds of infrastructure, like Advanced Metering Infrastructure, are needed to enable a highly efficient grid and an informed customer base. Richard Caperton of Opower (a business unit of Oracle) shares his perspective on all of these questions in an interview from RMI’s eLab Annual Summit 2016.

Geek rating: 6

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